A TRIBUTE TO THE SOLOMON MAHLANGU FREEDOM COLLEGE

What was SOMAFCO’s role in the ANC’s conceptualisation of public education?

We are where we are because of our past. Nothing proves this more than South Africa’s public education system. Like other public education systems across the world, it has changed and evolved over time. Since 1994, public schools across the country have undergone drastic changes in the form of racial inclusion, curriculum amendments and financial alterations. It’s important to understand, though, that despite these challenges, the foundation of South Africa’s public schools were not just an afterthought of the 1994 elections. Many years of brainstorming and practical projects were put in place well before 1994. In this blog post, I track the attempts of the ANC’s 1970 and 1980s leadership as they wrestle through conceptualising an education system that would one day provide education to South Africa’s young learners. Join me in this historical journey as we uncover the importance of the ANC’s cross-continental foray into education provision.

The Nationalist Party, an ethnic Afrikaner political party that promoted their own minority interests,  formulated the most comprehensive and explicitly racist plan for education in South Africa. This educational plan, known as the Bantu Education Act of 1953, was labelled by the African National Congress, and other critics, as “schooling for servitude” and only re-established the already known fact that this form of education would continue to serve white interests to the detriment of the black population. Hendrik Verwoerd, who was a known Nazi supporter, said of the 1953 Act in a speech as Minister of Native Affairs on the 7th June 1954.

“The school must equip the Bantu to meet the demands which the economic life of South Africa will impose on him…There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This collective racist ideology swept through the country and ensured that black children received an education that was vastly inferior to white learners. The implementation of this sub-standard form of education was in many ways a spark that ignited protests and mobilization across the country through the decades, but it was only in 1976 that the most intense manifestation of disgust and revulsion towards these policies occurred. The Soweto uprising of 1976 was brought about by, amongst other factors, the apartheid governments forceful inclusion of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, which would diminish – in many ways – the use of English. This was the language that ensured black learners had future political and social participation on a global stage. The notion of education as a public good and a human right during this era, was clearly a farce. This lop-sided education benefitted only a white minority and demoted the black majority to slavery, all in the name of the public good.

The 1976 protests were a major turning point for South Africa’s future democracy and for South Africa’s integrated, non-racial and constitutionally equal education system.

After the Soweto uprising[1], learners directly affected in the 1976 protests and learners from across the country fled into exile fearing for their lives. Many of them crossed South African borders into neighbouring countries. The ANC leadership[2], well aware of this exodus of students, formulated and formed The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in 1978 to accommodate all exiled students in Tanzania. The SOMAFCO had a dual role, articulated poignantly by the late Chris Hani, who visited the College in the 1980’s:

This is not an ordinary college… the idea behind this college [is] to prepare the South African youth, [who are] deprived of so many opportunities inside the country, for a role not only in the [current] struggle, but [also] a role in the future [running of our country].

The philosophy of the school was clear to see, from the visionaries at the top to the laymen implementing the plans on the ground. Firstly, it was the realization that a physical geographical space should be created, outside from the current misrepresented state-run system, to develop a black educational alternative of quality education. Secondly, SOMAFCO’s curriculum was intended as both an alternative to “Bantu Education and as a model of post-apartheid education”. This philosophy was one where the notion of education as a public good embodied democratic ideals such as equality, fairness and ubuntu. The ANC’s original conceptualisation of public education must therefore not be divorced from SOMAFCO.

This public education, as envisaged by the ANC in SOMAFCO placed a high emphasis on Maths and Science, which were subjects that blacks had limited access to in South Africa due to the policies set up by the apartheid state and implemented by Verwoerd. It also created compulsory courses which focused on the history of the struggle and a course on the development of societies, which  served to orient future leaders. The college, however, was not without its problems. The idea of being a ‘revolutionary school’ often came with conflicting views and notions of mixed pedagogy. One particularly interesting example comes from the school’s embrace of socialist education, especially Julius Nyerere’s ideas of “education for self-reliance through school gardens and farms” and the Freirean influence of Terry and Barbara Bell[3].

These Freirean views were vastly different with what was seen later, when the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union began to disintegrate. The early notions of socialism were quickly diluted by philosophies of capitalism, as early as 1989. These global changes had drastic repercussions for the school’s noble ideas of education as a public and common good – partly because the school survived on donations from Soviet nations and Nordic countries. This therefore meant that SOMAFCO (which was interwoven with Soviet designs of a state funded education as envisioned by the Freedom charter, clause 8) was being eroded.

Despite these challenges of mixed philosophies and pedagogy, a number of notable alumni (who serve the public good, in the early sense) have emerged from SOMAFCO. Probably one of the most influential is the Honourable Lindiwe Daphney Zulu, who is currently serving as South Africa’s Minister of Social Development.  Notable educators, who were instrumental in the curriculum and formation of the ideals at the college are Lionel Bernstein, Ruth First and Jack Simmons to name a few.

The SOMAFCO era (especially in the early days) in many ways, built the foundation for the ANC’s educational policies. These policies found its birthplace in the Freedom Charter of 1955, but were also reimagined and developed in the NEPI documents of the early 1990’s, a period before South Africa’s first free and fair elections. A tribute to SOMAFCO, its teachers and students is therefore a fitting way to recognize its foundational importance for our current Educational system.


[1] An estimated 20 000 students took part in the protests which killed around 575 and wounded more than 2300 (Lapping, 1987, p. 160).

[2] The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, established in Mazimbu, Tanzania, on land provided by the Tanzanian government, was named after the first member of the exiled African National Congress to be executed by the South African government. It was the brain child and vision of O.R. Tambo, Julius Nyere, Chris Hani, Olaf Palme, Albert Luthuli, Alfred Nzo and others (SOMAFCOTrust, 2013).

[3] South African expats who had lived in New Zealand, but were asked by the ANC leadership to assist with managing the school in the 1980’s. Both ardent Paulo Freirean educationalists who believed in ‘Democratic Schooling’, freedom and responsibility..

Can “Education” solve South Africa’s high level of unemployment? (Part II)

South Africa’s unemployment rate has sky-rocketed to a staggering 30,1% in the first quarter of 2020. This means that of the roughly 24 000 000 people in our labour force, over 7 million are currently unemployed. This unwanted statistic puts South Africa in the Top 20 list of ‘Highest unemployment rates’ globally.

The long-held notion that improving the level of education (and subsequently the standard of education) will be a viable and trusted way to lower the unemployment rate is a logical red herring. In this post I hope to provide evidence to show why “education” (or lack thereof) in its current form, cannot be blamed for South Africa’s high unemployment rate.

Clarifying Terms and Definitions

Firstly, a clarification must be made in terms of this articles main subject, Education. Education as we know it in a South African context, is considered a public good. However, the notion of education as a public good is based firmly within an economic framework and although it is considered a human right, the track record of education as a human right in South Africa clearly indicates otherwise[1].

Noting, now, that education is an economic public good, has economic characteristics (where the end goal is profit making) and that this form of economic education has as its main objective the development of very specific people for very specific economic roles (which have specific purposes), we must differentiate it from education as a human right. Education as a human right is fundamentally distinct from education as an economic public good and our understanding of education in this economic context should not be confused with education as envisaged in the Freedom Charter of 1955.

Human Capital Theory

Any discussion on economic unemployment cannot be fruitful without understanding the fundamental idea of ‘Human Capital Theory’. For this discussion, I will use as a definitional base, Professor Gustafsson’s[2] illustration on Human Capital Theory (HCT) used in his Economics of Education Course at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I will then expand on this illustration using a range of readings.

HCT[3] is a theory in Economics that sees a high value (both normative and economic) placed on human capital and education. In other words, it is a view that the more a person is educated, the higher a person’s income will be. Rose argues that this understanding has been peddled by Capitalist governments and International Organizations such as the World Bank (WB), despite there being ample evidence to the contrary.

Briefly defined, households calculate whether or not they should educate their child by looking at the potential income the child will provide from being educated. They then subtract the opportunity costs that will be foregone if the child is educated as well as the direct costs (such as books, tuition, transport, etc) of educating the child. This is known, in Economic circles, as the Private Rate of Return. It is this equation that drives the education of children in households and helps to decide whether or not education should be undertaken. The same philosophy lies behind broader National Educational Systems influenced by Neoliberalism; South Africa included. The term ‘Rate of Return’ in Education is one that is synonymous with Human Capital Theory. It is this term that modern governments use to justify various policies and programmes. The basic premise is to identify which group of people will allow the greatest economic return on the educational investment. A brief unpacking of this term follows.

Education systems across the globe develop skills (also called learning outcomes) in its learners. For example, the South African CAPS curriculum has a host of skills at the various exit points[4]. These skills have been developed in order for learners to contribute to the economy. The skill of understanding numerical literacy is vital when considering that Economists and Mathematicians must be able to count, understand complex equations and calculate multifariously. These skills are then ‘rated’ accordingly to ensure uniformity. Educational Compliance Authorities have therefore developed structures that ‘rate’ the skills/learning outcomes obtained. These help to bring a sense of national (and even international) unanimity. In South Africa, the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, which saw all forms of education in the country integrated into “a single framework that facilitated access to, mobility and progression within, education, training and career paths”. Interestingly, South Africa’s NQF levels have been exported and are now being used throughout Africa, which underlines the growing importance of HCT in Neoliberal Globalized developing countries[5].

HCT focuses on the skills obtained and uses the qualification framework as a means of accountability. These skills that have been obtained, are what Human Capital Theorists say promotes productivity and propels the Economy forward. The reasoning behind this is logical: better and improved skills mean the possibility of higher production output. Higher Productivity means higher GDP. Better skills in a country also means better ways of problem-solving issues in the country. As a nation improves its ability and skills, it can earn higher incomes (across the board for all inhabitants), which generally also means improved social development.

The problem arises when governments and organizations such as the WB, begin using what is clearly an Economic term ‘Rates of Return’ to define Educational outcomes and monetarize something that cannot be monetarized, i.e. education as a human right. The WB has become the biggest educational investor across the globe and also the main instigator and ‘educational expert’ of implementing ‘Rates of Return’ within governments. South Africa has not been exempt from this phenomenon. Our educational landscape has changed dramatically with the implementation of Neoliberal policies, which has culminated with the hijacking of the term “education”. Education is no longer truly seen as a human right, but only as a means to an economic end. The Freedom Charter of 1955 has been forgotten and replaced with Verwoedian’ Market Policies.

What are the implications of the HCT for employment in South Africa?

The most important implication has been aptly summarised by Dr. Mike Van Graan who says,

“In some ways it [the way the State sees education] is quite Verwoerdian[6]… people are essentially cogs in a capitalist machine.”

This means that people are forced to conform into the economic mould that has prevailed in society. If a student does not show proficiency in any of the skills deemed as important by the state, he/she is deemed unfit and is either tossed out of the educational system or quickly regarded as dead weight (in an economic sense) and encouraged to apply for the meagre unemployment grant available by the State[7]. These people are what Prof. Badroodien refers to as ‘disposable youth’. Disposed of by society because they do not fit into the educational mould which ultimately has an economic purpose. Education in this economic sense can never solve our unemployment rate. 7 000 000 people are being tossed out of the system due to their unsuitability for the economy, or due to the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around.

What are some possible solutions?

Firstly, education should be more than just an economic public good. Basic Primary Education should be delivered as a fundamental human right of the highest quality to all learners. BottomUp theorizes this solution:

“ALL schools should be classified as “no-fee” schools, and that NO SCHOOLS should charge fees. This must also necessarily be linked to a revision to our tax system to raise the needed funds to improve school provisions across the board. To do so, is to reimagine schooling entirely and to establish a truly public system of education in South Africa, and this could include in-sourcing present SGB employed teachers and support staff (since they are needed).”

Undertaking such an endeavour will ensure that education is provided holistically as a human right to all learners. Finland undertook this costly approach in 1968 (when they were not in a strong financial position) and is now regarded as the best educational system globally.

Secondly, as Inglesi-Lotz and Gerlagh point out, government “should focus on creating an environment with policies that are supportive to economic growth”. One such policy, I suggest, would be to merge the manufacturing sector and the educational CAPS curriculum so that skill levels link directly into post-matric manufacturing jobs. This should be State-sponsored and State-run, with the sole intention of making use of ALL available human capital, irrespective of skills available. Linked to this idea would be the notion of making this paid “public service” mandatory for a minimum of two years. The experience and skills gained by the young labour force in these two years will, I believe, create an impetus and momentum to encourage entrepreneurship. This is education. Encouraging learners to excel without the notion of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or the idea that they must conform in to certain pre-defined moulds to succeed. The biggest problem is an economic one where there are not enough jobs to go around. This economic problem can ONLY be solved by an economic response and there therefore must be some intervention by government to create long lasting jobs[8].

Lastly, looking at the WB’s Education Strategy 2020 document  it is clear to see that the WB is all about return on investments, despite the jargon of providing education and eradicating inequality in the educational sphere. The biggest return on investment for the WB is no doubt Primary Education, and is subsequently the area that is targeted amongst developing countries for investment. I suggest, however, that primary education should be funded solely by the State and that the educational sphere that should be inundated with funding and investment (from private sources if need be) is the tertiary sector. It is this sector that can make the biggest contribution to society (in the form of inventions, business ideas, medical cures, engineering feats, etc), when handled correctly and equitably.

In summary, the education system needs to re-imagined and re-ordered so that the narrowly focused idea of HCT is not the driving force of education and the economy. Instead, an approach that sees education being treated as a basic human right (across the board and equitably) joined together with other sectors where everyone can contribute something while benefitting, will I believe yield better results and lower the unemployment rate.


[1] There are numerous schools across the country that still do not have basic access to water and sanitation, textbooks, proper classrooms, adequate educators, etc. This denotes a basic denial of human rights to these people.

[2] Gustafsson is Associate Professor at Wits and focuses on Economics in Education – https://www.ekon.sun.ac.za/staff/gustafsson-martin

[3] Human Capital Theory has its origins in Adam Smith’s work, but it was Jacob Mincer and Theodore Shultz who popularized the theory.

[4] The Learning outcomes of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) can be found on multiple pages within the document/s itself – https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/CurriculumAssessmentPolicyStatements(CAPS).aspx

[5] http://www.tourism.org.ng/national-vocational-qualifications-framework/

[6] Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid and famously called for a controlled economic state in which only the white minority benefitted. See https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/hendrik-frensch-verwoerd

[7] The value of this grant has been included in the ‘Rate of Return’ calculation of education investment. It is therefore worth noting that it is currently cheaper for the government to continue paying out this meagre grant than to re-order the education system! Motive to continue with the current unequal and unjust system.

[8] This is evidenced by the fact that our streets are littered with educated people who are seen with street sign begging for jobs. See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36367703