South Africa: ‘Education as an Elixir for Freedom’


Good evening. Thank you for Professor Desai for this opportunity, and good evening to you all. My speech tonight will rely on facts and figures, because they paint a picture we need to look at and comprehend. But facts and figures alone would make for a dull evening, and a ‘lesson’ that would surely fail to impress the best among the teaching students of UWC! So I will begin with a poem.

PART 1 – A POEM: An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum


Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor.
The tall girl with her weighed-down head.The paper-
seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,
His lesson from his desk. At back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,
Of squirrel’s game, in the tree room, other than this.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these Children, these windows, not this world, are world,
Where all their future’s painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky,
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, and the map a bad example
With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal–
For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
All of their time and space are foggy slum.
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

Unless, governor, teacher, inspector, visitor, This map becomes their window and these windows
That shut upon their lives like catacombs,
Break O break open ’till they break the town
And show the children green fields and make their world
Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues
Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open
History is theirs whose language is the sun

Stephen Spender – 1964


That poem is by Stephen Spender, a British poet, a socialist, a man who fought against fascism in Spain. How well he describes our townships in 2011. How well he describes the children we know, who “wear skins peeped through by bones”.

PART 2 – FACTS: Children in South Africa today

In 2009, there were more than a million children without fathers in government schools, and 623 764 without mothers. According to the basic education department’s report on the annual survey conducted in government schools in 2009, more than two million pupils – representing 18% of all pupils – had lost one or both parents. According to the report, 10 600 pupils died in 2008. Most were in KwaZulu-Natal (3 110), followed by the Eastern Cape (2 026). The main causes were disease, accidents, violence, murder and suicide. The highest incidence of suicide was in KwaZulu-Natal. According to the department, 49 599 girls fell pregnant in 2008. About three million pupils (23%) received welfare grants in 2009, according to information received from principals. 18% of children between the age of 1 and 9 are stunted dueto chronic malnutrition.[1] Undernutrition is associated with poverty, with stunting rates six times higher in thepoorest quintile compared with the richest (38% vs. 6%).[2] The level of income disparity between the richest andpoorest in South Africa is measured by the Gini coefficient,which rose from 0.665 in 1994 to 0.666 in 2008,[3]makingSouth Africa the most unequal society in the world. (The causes of inequality, rooted in our economic system, are beyond the scope of this talk.) The tragedy of our education system is that it is reproducing these inequalities.

PART 3: FACTS: Inequality in Schooling today

Let’s begin by taking two particular snapshots of the matric results from 2009 and 2010. There are 54 schools in Khayelitsha, among them 19 high schools.

Every Generation Has Its Struggle

Every Generation Has Its Struggle

In 2009 there were over 3000 matrics in Khayelitsha. 989 did maths and science. How many got over 50% for both? Just 26.

Now in 2010, at Westerford, a top school in Rondebosch, Cape Town, there were 165 matrics, of whom 164 achieved university entrance passes. Between them these students achieved 403 ‘A’ symbols in their various subjects. And in Khayelitsha just 30 km away? There were 3228 matrics in the 19 high schools. They achieved just 44 A symbols between them.

These are snapshots. How immense are the odds stacked against these young people? Anyone who meets them will be left with no doubt that they are every bit as bright and ambitious as the students at Westerford, but from the moment they entered school – and even before that – they have been falling behind.

This does not just manifest in matric. Empirical studies have shown that South African learners lag far behind their peers in other countries. In the SACMEQ II study involving 14 sub-Saharan African countries, 49.9% of South African grade 6 learners could not understand the meaning of basic written information. Overall, South Africa ranked ninth behind countries including Mozambique, Tanzania and Swaziland.[4]

In the PIRLS 2006 report which tested primary school learners’ reading skills in 40 nations, South Africa’s learners achieved the lowest scores.[5]

In comparison to the South Africans, 7.23% of whom attended schools with functional libraries, 89% of learners in the other 39 countries attended schools with functional libraries; half of these children were taking library books home on a daily basis and half made use of a central school library at least once a week.

International research has demonstrated that when a well-functioning, well-stocked, well-staffed library is added to a school the performance of learners  goes up by 10% – 25% (see Lance et al., 2000). Local research shows that schools in South Africa that do have a library have pass rates of 19% higher than those without (Bhorat and Oosthuizen., 2008).

There is a big climb ahead of us, and it starts with reading and libraries. Numeracy is just as crucial. What percentage of grade 6 learners, in this province, are numerate at grade 6 level?[6]

Former dept





CED (former ‘white’ schools)





DET (former ‘black’ schools)





HoD (former ‘Indian’ schools)





HoR (former ‘coloured’ schools)





WCED (new, post-1994 schools)


Western Cape Total





The table above shows the numeracy levels of grade 6 children in the Western Cape, the South African province with the best overall education results. All grade 6 children were tested in government-sponsored research, and the table above shows what percentage of those tested achieved 50% of more on the test designed to test basic numeracy competency at grade 6 level. As the table shows, in previously white schools, which are today somewhat integrated, approximately two-thirds of children meet the grade, but it previously black schools the figure has climbed from 0.1% to 2.1%.

A recent nationwide study focusing on barriers children face in accessing and participating in education, conducted by Social Surveys and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), found that half of all learners between the ages of 16 and 18 are required to share textbooks with other learners.

EE recently took action to ensure textbook provision for grade 12 learners at schools in Khayelitsha. In July 2010 many grade 12 learners still lacked Xhosa, Mathematics, Physical Science, Music, Life Sciences, Business and Geography books.

Amidst all of this, where is the light? How is it that a vibrant, articulate mass movement of youth has arisen out of this? Activism moves constantly between anger and hope. Anger is part of building a sense of rights, justice and accountability, but hope is what motivates great efforts by hundreds and thousands of people. Fundamentally, the members of Equal Education still believe in the power of education to change their lives, and to transform their communities. That belief burns bright and it is what powers them.  I will come to the Equal Education story shortly, but first, I want to relate two stories that illustrate the power of education.

PART 4: Two Stories about the power of a getting a good education

These are stories about two great South Africans: Oliver Tambo and George Bizos.

OR Tambo[7]

Oliver Tambo’s life and education show the painful but exhilarating contradictions between modern education and traditional life, and the resulting difficulties for identity, decision-making and leadership. Tambo’s boyhood name was Kaizana. His grandfather, named Tambo, was a Zulu who migrated into Xhosa-speaking Pondoland, the last tribal area to fall under colonial control. Born in 1917, Kaizana was named after the German King, Kaizer Wilhelm, who was at that time battling England, Tambo’s colonial enemy, in WWI.

Build Brick Schools

Build Brick Schools

How did Oliver Tambo get his name? His Biographer, LuliCallinicos tells the story:

On his first day of school, Kaizana discovered something that was as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic his father hoped the teacher would instill in the young boy. He learnt that schooling also required him to manage another identity.

‘The teacher approached me and asked me for my name. I have him my name and he said, “No, you are giving me your home name. I want your school name.” I told him I did not know my school name. “Well then,” he said, “you also have a second name, which should be the name of one of your ancestors who has died. So tomorrow you bring your name and surname.”

‘Returning home, I told my parents that the teacher did not want my name… The following morning, my father told me that my school name would be Oliver and the second name, Tambo…’

At first, Tambo was a reluctant schoolboy:

‘I did not like going to school, firstly because it was far, and I didn’t enjoy it. My father was aware of this and he sometimes lent me his horse to go to school just to encourage me. But of course, if I was going on horseback it was great fun; but when I didn’t have the horse, I would find excuses not to go. I would play sick, and I found the weather a great ally of mine. If it was raining then my parents would say, “No, don’t go to school.”

‘So my best day was rain. And I came to study the weather, the movement of the clouds every afternoon to try and make out what kind of weather it was going to be the following day. I became quite an expert. I had a deep interest, and I was absolutely accurate about whether it was going to rain or not. Always accurate. That stayed with me even when I was no longer at home. I looked at the clouds and I could say to people, “It’s going to rain”, and it rained. It’s still the same today. I usually tell long before people are aware of it. That’s how I learnt it – because I didn’t want to go to school.’

Apart from his preference for horse riding, other, more serious factors made Tambo reticent about attending his rural mission school:

He was becoming increasingly concerned that he was not contributing his fair share to the productivity of the homestead. ‘My father now had to look after cattle as if he were a herd boy,’ recalled Tambo. ‘[His friends] thought he was silly and stupid. “He’s got so many boys and here he is looking after the cattle himself,” they said – and he was just about the only one who did that. Our age group were at their homes looking after the cattle; their parents had no problems looking after cattle themselves. But we weren’t there. My father was determined that we should go to school.’

Would Tambo have become who he became without such a visionary and self-sacrificing father?

And there was a third factor that threatened Tambo’s education. His family was poor, not well-connected, and couldn’t afford the school fees.

‘As day followed day, the gloomy prospect of returning [loomed] larger and larger and my father and the rest of us were increasingly giving in to despair and sadness; but … BoetieS’Kumbu did not seem prepared to give up, and indeed, after several painful anxious days, he brought the great news that we were to be admitted to the school and would stay at St John’s Kraal as boarders… We came to know that the relief which thus case to us was provided by two women, Joyce and Ruth Goddard, who lived in England.’

But, in fact, this was not enough. Again Tambo’s education was threatened by poverty:

The Goddard sisters could not, in fact, afford the full amount needed for the boys’ education, so Oliver and Alan’s oldest brother, Willy, who was working in the coal mines in Natal, undertook to provide £6 a year, to match the £6 donated by the English sisters. Their financial help was to continue, to a greater or lesser extent as far as their means allowed, until 1940, by which time Oliver was a student at Fort Hare.

But good luck was not always something Tambo could rely on. In fact, due to having to move schools numerous times, he was forced to repeat Standard 6 three times. During his third year in Standard 6 he also developed TB in the chest, and had to undergo surgery which confined him to hospital for a while.

Tambo completed the majority of his high school years in Johannesburg, a completely different world from the Pondoland hills in which he had grown up. The standard of education was also higher, as he himself observed:

‘It was becoming clear that, from being at the top at Holy Cross, we were at the bottom at St Peter’s. Objectively, this was very good, for it offered us a challenge and an opportunity to grow if we were ready to take it; and we surely were.’

Having navigated these challenges, and not needing to walk miles in the rain anymore, Tambo began to enjoy school and thrive. But classroom instruction was not his only source of nourishment:

[E]very Wednesday afternoon … SelopeThema – journalist and subeditor of The Bantu World – would come to St Peter’s and give them an African history lesson that included the pre-colonial past as well as the recent history of the struggle against colonialism and oppression.

They called these sessions ‘workshops’. These workshops would have formed in Tambo a sense that education is about more than personal development, it is also indispensable to those who want to shape history for good or for evil; in other words, knowledge is power.

Finally, in November 1936, it came time for Tambo to write his Junior Certificate, school leaving examinations along with other black and white students throughout the Transvaal, who all sat for the same examination.

‘The results showed that Joe Mokoena and I had made history. For the first time in the history of education in South Africa, two African students had passed the JC with a First Class degree, regarded as a rare achievement for any student. For a society steeped in racist beliefs about European superiority, this incredible news … rocked the whole country, including the Transkei…’

A fellow student explained the reaction of the country:

‘We were then writing the same examinations as any white school… They excited the whole of South Africa that for the first time two black students can get First Class, First Division and come out with distinctions; the examiners in Pretoria were very surprised. They had to come and inspect the school, because they couldn’t understand how black people could acquire such high standards. [The examiners wanted to know] where they were sitting, because they suspected that they may have been copying. [But] they had been sitting far from each other when they wrote the exams’.

Elixir for Freedom

Elixir for Freedom

In fact, in that same year, only one other boy in the Transvaal managed to equal that – and he was white. By this time both Tambo’s parents were dead. He remembers wishing they were alive to experience this moment of triumph.

Tambo’s story is partly a triumph over adversity produced by his own talent. But the opportunities he had were also the rare sparkling exception resulting from his father’s rare understanding of the power of education, and his luck with financial benefactors. In his life-chances, he was the exception to the rule. During those years the vast majority of Pondoland children never saw the inside of a classroom, and if they did, did not have families that pushed them to pursue education all the way to completion. There were undoubtedly many other brilliant young mathematicians in those hills whose lives never unfolded in the unlikely and spectacular way that Tambo’s did.

George Bizos[8]

George Bizos is one of the most celebrated lawyers in South Africa. He was part of the team that defended Mandela, Sisulu and others at the Rivonia Trial and helped to ensure that they were spared the death penalty. He defended the UDF leaders at the Delmas Treason Trial and represented Steve Biko’s family at the inquest into his death. Throughout his life he has defended poor people.

There is no profession which requires more hours of reading than law, and not just any reading, but careful reading over every word to find the missing fact, the legal opening and the winning line of argument.

Bizos grew up in a small rural village in Greece. He began school a year before Tambo wrote the JC examinations. In some ways Bizos faced even greater odds:

‘My primary school was not unlike those the children of Soweto attended during the apartheid years. In the 1930s there were no fewer than a hundred and forty of us of different ages in one room with a single teacher. A blackboard, an abacus and a slate were the main teaching aids. A tattered reading book was passed from one year to the next, while a new exercise book, a pencil and an eraser were all we had.’

But Bizos was also very lucky. His father was mayor of the little village. Therefore, Kyria Eugenia Kotsakis, who they called Daskala – the teacher, stayed in their house. This meant he got a lot of extra instruction and attention.

As Bizos recalls:

‘She managed the school with ease and grace. We were not afraid of her. Before we arrived at school she wrote exercises on the blackboard for the older ones to do on their slates or in their books, then she read lessons to us, the younger ones. She set exercises then moved to another age group and more advanced work.

Daskala secured our discipline by appealing to our better natures.

This contrasts with Tambo’s first teacher who beat the children constantly with a leather belt.

Bizos continues:

‘The worst physical punishment she ever imposed on anyone was three moderate smacks with a flat ruler on the palm of the offender’s hand – but she was capable of administering tongue-lashings which put us to shame.

Right-wing Royalists started to gain power in Greece and Bizos’ father lost his position as mayor. On top of this, his family was poor. One day the school principal called Bizos’ father in and asked him to replace his son’s old and tatty shoes.

Like Tambo, Bizos had to leave home to pursue his studies. His father sent him to Kalamata where Daskala now lived. Bizos failed the entrance exam and therefore had to begin again in first grade.

During these years fascism was rising in Europe and then WWII broke out in 1939. One day it was reported to Bizos’ father that a shepherd had seen a group of hungry, frightened men hiding in the hills. In fact, these were New Zealand soldiers who had been fighting to protect Greece from Germany and Italy, and were evading capture. Young Bizos and his father set out to find them, carrying food. This encounter led to one of the many daring and selfless acts of the war: Bizos’ father used most of the family’s saving to buy a boat to help the New Zealanders sail to Crete, an island that was still under Allied control. Many of the villagers helped in this effort, providing food and finances. This heroic journey successfully rescued the soldiers, when the little boat was found by a British naval fleet. George and his father climbed aboard with the soldiers and were taken to Alexandria in Egypt. Bizos’ father would never see Greece or his wife again.

The two were told they could not return to Greece until after the war and so elected to go to South Africa. There Bizos’ father took small jobs and tried to make ends meet. George was looked after by members of the Greek immigrant community in Johannesburg. He would work in shops, and do odd jobs, but education was not very high on his priority list. He and his father achieved some fame when a Sunday Times journalist discovered their heroism and published the story with a picture.

At that time the likelihood was that George would never finish school. But as he tells us, ‘chance would have it otherwise’.

‘One day, while serving a customer, I noticed a young woman in the middle of the shop staring at me. She was wearing a blue blazer with white and yellow stripes and a badge on the pocket with the head of a goat sporting long, upward-turned horns. There was a motto underneath but I couldn’t read it, much less understand what it meant. As she waited her turn she stared at me. When I served her, she turned her head sideways, smiled and asked, ‘Are you not the boy whose photo appeared in the newspaper? With your father?The ones that escaped from the Germans?’ I said I was. With an even broader smile she reached across the counter to shake my hand. ‘What school do you go to?’ I told her that I didn’t go to school. She asked to speak to my father and, when I said he worked in Pretoria, she waited for Mr Bill to finish serving the customer.

She introduced herself as Cecilia Feinstein, a teacher. Although the shop was busy – it was late afternoon and many people got off the tram at the nearby shop – she bombarded Mr Bill with questions about me and my father. Why was I not at school? How could she get in touch with my father? How old was I? … Then she said she would come back in a day or two, by which time she hoped all would have agreed that she could take me to her school the following Monday.

… The young teacher came back and was delighted to hear the decision. Would I put on my best clothes, including the cap I wore when the newspaper photograph was taken, and be ready at seven the next morning? She would take me to Malvern Junior High, a school offering standards six to eight.

George joined Miss Feinstein’s class, and after a while, he began to flourish.

By 1943 Miss Feinstein told George that she was engaged to be married, and would no longer teach the class. But she continued to play a pivotal role, as George remembers:

‘I told her of my father’s wish that I become a doctor, and she said she believed I could do it. Such encouragement was new to me. When I had ventured to write about my dreams for the future in a class essay, my English teacher had added a note at the end saying that I was building castles in the air. Miss Feinstein said that she did not mean to criticize the school, but that for my dreams to come true I should go to a proper high school where I could matriculate. If my father and I agreed, she could arrange for me to start standard eight at Athlone High School…


Thirty years later Bizos decided to track Cecilia down. He called, but did not find her at home, but she returned his call. On the phone she said:

‘I thought that I must have been you who phoned earlier, but I just couldn’t wait anymore. I so badly wanted to speak to you. I have been following your cases, and I am so proud of you.’

‘And I am so grateful to you, [Bizos] said. ‘If it had not been for you, I don’t know what I would have done with my life.’


Many years later, in 1996, the University of Natal in Durban conferred an honorary doctorate of law on George Bizos. He was asked which special guest he wanted to invite to the ceremony. Cecilia Feinstein was top of the list. Finally, after more than fifty years, he was able to make a public acknowledgment of her role in his life.

As he says in his autobiography, titled Odyssey to Freedom, ‘I often wonder what I might have made of my life if she had not insisted that, refugee or not, I was entitled to the right to learn.’


OR Tambo and George Bizos are two South African heroes. They faced daunting odds but climbed out of adversity to succeed. But they were also both very lucky. People came into their lives at the right moments and helped them get a really good education. It’s likely that at that stage of their lives they didn’t even fully understand the value of a good education, or how lucky they were.

Today, as in the past, there are many young people as bright at Tambo and Bizos who never get that lucky break, who remain in the Pondoland hills herding goats, or in the corner shop serving customers. Many of these join Equal Education every day.

The reason Equal Education exists is to give everyone a chance to use their talents. When that happens humanity benefits, because we don’t lose out on the contributions of the many other potential Olivers and Georges.

PART 5: Equal Education

[At this point I show photographs and describe the work of Equal Education (EE), including youth leadership development, campaigns, research etc etc.

For a glimpse of EE’s work, check out:
– Photos: and

– Video: and

– Press: and\

– Recent Memorandum: ]

PART 6: Conclusion – Education as ‘Elixir for Freedom’

What motivated Stephen Spender to write his poem about ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’? In 1964 spender was looking across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America. Ten years earlier, in 1954 the US Supreme Court has said segregation of schooling was illegal. But by 1964 the order was hardly implemented, and struggles for equal and quality education were being waged all across the country, in the heat of the civil rights movement. It was not just the pain of youth, but their courage that inspired the great British poet.

One young girl who benefitted from Brown v Board of Education, the desegregation court case, was named Ruth. Her story is not unlike that of Oliver Tambo and George Bizos. She was born in Grapeland, Texas, great-great granddaughter of slaves. She was the youngest of 12 children born to the sharecroppers Isaac and Fannie Stubblefield. When Ruth was seven years old the family moved to the fifth ward of Houston, a poverty-stricken neighborhood. There Isaac Stubblefield became a factory worker and later the minister of the Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, while Fannie Stubblefield scrubbed floors in the homes of well-to-do white families.

Obtaining an education was not something that a child from Ruth’s background took for granted. On the contrary, in Grapeland, where she was born, the children of sharecroppers often missed school because they were needed to labour in the fields at harvest time. It was not until the family moved to Houston that Ruth experienced a typical public school environment. Still, even though she attended a public school, segregation was the norm and a black child could not even think of attending college. Even though no one in the Stubblefield family had attended college, Ruth decided early to break the mold. She won a scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans. She has not stopped studying since.

Today, Ruth Simmons, is President of Brown University. She is the first woman president of Brown, and the first black president of an Ivy League University. She has poignantly described education as like an ‘elixir for freedom’.

That is the challenge for South Africa. Will poor quality education be a poverty trap, as recent research has suggested, or can it be an elixir for freedom?

Thank you.

[1]Labadarios D (ed) (2007) The National Food Consumption Survey – Fortification Baseline (NFCS-FB): The knowledge, attitude, behaviour and procurement regarding fortified foods, a measure of hunger and the anthropometric and selected micronutrient status of children aged 1 – 9 years and women of child bearing age: South Africa, 2005. Pretoria: Directorate: Nutrition, Department of Health.

[2] Sanders D & Chopra M (2006) Key challenges to achieving health in an inequitable society: The case of South Africa. American Journal of Public Health, 96(1): 73-79.

[3]Office of the President (2009) Development indicators 2009. Pretoria: The Presidency.

[4]‘Indicators by Country’, in Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (2004),, accessed: November 2009.

[5]Mullis, I. V. S., et al., PIRLS 2006 International Report: IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in Primary School in 40 Countries (Chestnut Hill, MA: 2007), 328.

[6] Grade 6 Western Cape numeracy pass rates by (%) by former department (pass set at 50%).

[7] The Tambo extracts come from Beyond the Engeli Mountains, the biography of Tambo’s life by LuliCallinicos.

[8] The Bizos extracts come from his autobiography Odyssey to Freedom.




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