Racial redress means different things for different schools: Case studies of five Gauteng schools

Racial redress in education cannot be considered outside the historically unequal relationships between black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor. Here, the big picture from research on racial redress in education is consistent. Redress in the form of a major turnaround of inequalities has not been achieved, writes Linda Chisholm.


Race, linked to class and income inequality, continues to be firmly embedded in South African education. And there is an ongoing conflict within individuals in seeing others in racial terms but the self as race-less and universal.

Looking at South Africa's most urbanised, industrial province, Gauteng, provides short portraits of change from 1994 to 2006 in fi ve public high schools, all situated in working-class areas of former white, Indian, coloured and African communities. It shows that each school has a unique story that sometimes confirms and often confounds the national picture in unexpected ways and as such gives content to the different meanings of redress in specific contexts.

In 1994 the students and staff at each school, its resource base, culture and ethos was economically and racially-defi ned. With the newly gained freedom of movement, new fee structures and choice in selecting schools, migration became central to the changing character of schools. Principals played an important role in charting the direction of schools and managing the changes. Principals and teachers articulated one of three approaches to race: cultural difference, liberal humanism and equality of opportunity or radical egalitarianism. The different approaches overlapped and coexisted in the same school. ‘Non-racialism' entailed ‘colour-blindness', principals espoused a commitment to ‘equal treatment', and acknowledgment of difference was seen as undesirable racial practice. But still, racially-based practices and strategies existed: in fact, race recognition was central to how school-based actors were reshaping school environments.

" ... each school has a unique story that sometimes confirms and often confounds the national picture in unexpected ways and as such gives content to the different meanings of redress in specific contexts."

How have these public schools changed since 1994? And how do they see race and redress? These case studies show that redress takes different forms and is differently understood in each context.

Two formerly Indian and coloured schools

Both Marina High and Sweet Waters High (pseudonyms) served working-class learners in the pre-1994 period, but Marina High is located in a more affluent community than Sweet Waters, which has long been characterised by unemployment and gangsterism.

In both schools the racial composition of students and staff has changed signifi cantly since 1994. In both, African students comprised about three quarters of the learner population in 2006, with the remaining quarter being Indian in the case of Marina, and coloured in the case of Sweet Waters.

In both schools, just over half the teachers were African. In both, the school governing bodies (SGBs) consisted of parents, representative of the learner population. The principals of both schools saw redress as granting access to previously excluded learners. In practice, the approach was assimilationist, rather than integrationist.

Socio-economically, both schools were worse off than in 1994. In both, parents had difficulty paying the relatively low school fees. At Marina High, which drew students from a neighbouring informal settlement, the principal considered the school's poverty quintile inadequate for his needs, given the large number of poor students in the school.

Matric results had dropped in both schools: from 99% in 1994 to around 70% in 2005 at Marina High and from 77% to 70% at Sweet Waters. Students in both schools did not study further, and most became unemployed.

In these cases, despite racial redress in the form of increased access, racial redress was not accompanied by educational redress promises, namely improved life chances through improved results.

An African school

Violet Makhanya High (pseudonym) exists in an old, established and impoverished working-class area of Soweto. The school is more diverse than before, including students from rural areas of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, and from Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland. The teaching staff is drawn from outside the immediate vicinity of the school.

In 2006, unlike in 1994, the lobby was freshly painted and boasted pot plants, the Constitution, a coat of arms and the school's vision and mission. For the principal, the opportunity to speak, have a voice, communicate, and for black teachers to apply for positions in formerly white schools were all testimony of the achievement of redress. For her, redress was not about access, and had not been achieved in terms of resources, but it existed in the form of greater democracy, openness and transparency. The matric pass rate had improved from 37% in 1994 to 60% in 2005. The majority of girls were unable to study further for financial reasons and entered various working class, mainly services jobs.

The SGB appeared to be a source of conflict rather than cohesion. Discipline was considered to be worse than before. And the local district office was experienced as interfering and authoritarian rather than as providing assistance.

Here, redress as a political achievement of the right to equality of opportunity, was considered as significant as economic improvement. It was evident in improved school results but not necessarily better opportunities in working life.

Former white schools

Two former white schools, Mackie and McCracken High Schools (pseudonyms), show two very different models of redress. Whereas Mackie High desegregated very rapidly, the conservative McCracken High did so more slowly.

In 2006, redress had been achieved at Mackie High in terms of enrolment, governance and staffi ng, but not resources. White learners were no longer enrolling, and the student body was almost entirely African. They came from families living in suburbs around the school, and from townships such as Soweto and Vosloorus. A small minority hailed from Mozambique and Angola.

Of the staff, the principal and his deputy were the only remaining whites. The SGB was predominantly African. Fees were R2 800 per annum but were unaffordable for single parent families and grannies living on pensions. In the eyes of the principal the school was essentially ‘a township school in a suburb'.

The school's poverty quintile ranking in comparison with its earlier history, distressed him. With limited fee income, the school was struggling to cover four additional teachers, textbooks, general maintenance, water, lights, and maintenance staff.

Redress had not been achieved for the new school entrants when judged by school performance and their future prospects. The matric pass rate dropped from 100% in 1994 to 64% in 2005, meaning that many left for the job market virtually unemployable. Truancy, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, theft and discipline rather than racial tensions preoccupied teachers. The principal remarked on ethnic tensions between teachers and tensions between local and foreign-born students.

By contrast, in 2006 McCracken High was a large and prosperous school charging relatively high fees. The lobby sported photographs of black school achievers alongside old all-white sporting teams. The school principal was ‘the first non-white principal' in the school's 100 years of existence. The staff remained largely white and 40% of the learners were African, 35% coloured and Indian and the remainder white.

For the principal, change and transformation, race and redress, colour-blindness and race consciousness coexisted. Students interacted within and across racial boundaries, and made fun of racial stereotypes. Relationships among staff were far more rigid and same-race bound. As in 1994, the school had an almost 100% matric pass rate, and many students proceeded to university to pursue a profession.


Racial redress comprises notions of achieving economic, political and educational equality through changing the relative balance of privilege between black and white. These case studies of working class schools in former all white, Indian, coloured and African communities in urban Gauteng show that there has been signifi cant redress when interpreted as equality of opportunity and increased access by African learners to schools previously closed to them. But racial redress has not translated into economic redress. The schools on the whole do what they did before: prepare their students for the working class and unemployment.

In this context, does it make sense to continue to use the formulations of ‘formerly white, Indian and coloured schools'? These commonly-used, euphemistic descriptions suggest richer and better schools, but the terminology obscures the presence of poor African students in these schools and the fact that many of these schools have changed and are not what they were.

This raises questions about fixing racial identities to schools when privileged populations or people either no longer attend them, or do so in very limited numbers. It asks: is this redress? And whose interests does it serve to continue to refer to them in these terms?

Dr Linda Chisholm is a director in the Education, Science and Skills Development research programme, and a visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The article is based on a chapter in Racial Redress and Citizenship in South Africa (HSRC Press), edited by Kristina Bentley and Adam Habib. Copies are available from leading booksellers and from the online bookshop at http://www.hsrcpress.ac.za/product.php?productid=2228&cat=17&page=1&featured.