Executive Perspective

An Education in South Africa

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

Last winter I saw the movie “Invictus.” It details how Nelson Mandela used a rugby match to bring about unification of the South African people after apartheid. I already had planned to visit South Africa in the spring as part of the People to People program started by President Dwight Eisenhower many years ago.

The movie served as an appetizer to prime my enthusiasm for the trip ahead. The visit to South Africa did not disappoint.

Dan Domenech Official PhotoDaniel A. Domenech



I have become a fan of Mandela and consider him a true hero. We can learn many lessons in leadership from the way he conducted himself during his years as president. In a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I was impressed by this statement written on the wall: “Mandela had learnt that leadership meant being faithful to the wishes of the collective — and he remembered too the lessons of his guardian, the Regent Jongintaba — that there are times when a leader has to show courage and go ahead of the flock to inspire a reluctant organization in the direction you want to go.”

Economic Divides
South Africa today still is an evolving experiment in democracy. Sixteen years into the process, the country can be proud of what is referred to as the world’s only negotiated revolution, and the oppressed people can breathe a sigh of relief after the lifting of the yoke of apartheid.

Nevertheless, South Africa is a country reeling from the poverty that still ravages, most of its people. It is hard to estimate the number of HIV-positive individuals and the number with full-blown AIDS. The epidemic has severely curtailed South Africa’s tourist industry at a time when the country was already feeling the impact of the economic recession scourging the world.

We visited the township of Langa on the outskirts of Cape Town, a black community where impoverished families of three and four occupied shacks no bigger than a walk-in closet, without water, electricity or sanitation facilities. Young men huddled about, not working, not in school, just hanging around. The community’s high crime rate also discourages tourism, as visitors are subject to robberies and assaults.

The education system is in shambles. Over 50 percent of students drop out and never graduate. Attendance rates are dismal, and the work ethic and qualifications of teachers are very poor. Many teachers report to work late and leave early. Often, students are left unsupervised, and there is a consensus that instruction takes place infrequently.

Similar to the United States, income is the most consistent indicator of student achievement. Some excellent schools exist in South Africa that rival the best we have to offer, but those schools are found only in the wealthy communities and in the private institutions of learning.

During the days of apartheid, there were seven departments of education, each conforming to race. I learned that in South Africa ethnicity is defined in many ways. There are whites and blacks, and then there are the colored people, who are not considered to be either black or white. For example, by virtue of the fact that President Obama’s mother was white, he is not black in South Africa, he is colored.

During apartheid, the different races could not legally live together. The blacks were driven from their homes to the outskirts of the cities whenever the white population needed room for expansion. Colored and black people lived in separate neighborhoods. In the racial hierarchy, whites ruled, then came the colored people, while the blacks were at the bottom. That arrangement held true for living conditions, income, jobs and the quality of education. The white schools received the greatest amount of funding, followed by the colored schools, with the least going to blacks.

A Forgiving Course
Although the situation has changed and the government apportions the greatest share of education funding to the schools with the greatest measure of poverty, much like here in the United States, the schools in wealthy communities are allowed to charge fees to the parents, which results in a greater per-pupil expenditure in those schools, contributing to more qualified teachers, better principals and a continuing disparity in the quality of education. Today, you can live anywhere you want regardless of race, providing you have the money to afford it. Consequently, the remnants of apartheid are still evident throughout the country.

This is a nation where only 10 percent of the population is white; the rest are black or people of color. In 1994, when the African National Congress took control of the government and the people elected Nelson Mandela president, the potential for a bloodbath was readily apparent.

The injustices suffered by the oppressed majority at the hands of the whites were brutal. The lust for vengeance and retribution was palpable. Mandela himself had been subjected to 27 years of imprisonment. The temptation, at the very least, to drive the white population from South Africa and appropriate their lands and fortune, must have been strong.

Showing great wisdom and restraint, Mandela set a course for national reconciliation that called for forgiving, if not necessarily forgetting. It is a measure of the character of the South African people that they were able to accomplish that most unlikely of feats.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org