A Comparison of South African and American Education on Racial Prejudice Essay Example


“Prejudice is the child of ignorance” (William Hazlitt). Most education systems spend twelve years teaching students how to avoid being ignorant, and therefore prejudicial. However, during the apartheid period in South Africa, the education system did just the opposite. Students, both white and black, were deliberately prejudiced against each other in an effort to keep whites in power over a black majority. This prejudice is highlighted in Johannes Mathabane’s memoir Kaffir Boy, a story of a young black boy growing up in South Africa who used education as a means to escape the poverty that affected the vast majority of black South Africans during his childhood.

While William Hazlitt’s quote was not written with Johannes Mathabane in mind, it accurately describes both his experiences and those of other South African students. Because racial prejudice and topics relating to countries other than South Africa were rarely addressed in Johannes’ education, prejudice became accepted and even encouraged. This contrasts starkly with the American education that I have received, where racial tolerance and an understanding of foreign customs is both taught and expected. Johannes Mathabane’s South African schooling regarding racial prejudice, foreign nations, and foreign languages both differed and paralleled with my American education.

During Johannes’ time in school, he was often reminded of the distinctive type of racial discrimination that affected South Africa. He knew at a young age that in South Africa, whites and blacks were treated, and educated, completely different from each other. Blacks were taught in separate schools from whites and were often told that all whites were inherently evil. While this was true in almost every case in Johannes’ experience, he did have some encounters with kind whites. In one instance, a kind family who employed his grandmother knew that Johannes did not own any books and decided to give him a few that their son had outgrown. However, when Johannes mentions this in school, his teacher believes his grandmother has stolen the books and replies, “There’s no such thing as a nice white man” (Mathabane 172).

Conversely, the white children in South Africa were informed that blacks were inferior to whites in intelligence and civility. The son of the family that Johannes’ grandmother worked for discussed this with Johannes without even a hint of discomfort, condescendingly telling him, “My teachers tell us that Kaffirs can’t read, speak or write English like white people because they have smaller brains” (192). The impertinent boy insulted Johannes and other blacks with the use of the derogatory term “Kaffir,” hardly realizing that the term was obscene because he had been taught to use it. In a deliberate move by the South African government to set different races against each other in order to maintain control, all students in South Africa were prejudiced against other races. This is completely different from my experience in education, where schools are integrated and prided on their diversity. However, the fact that I am in school about fifty years later must be taken into consideration, as my experience relating to racial prejudice would likely have been more similar to Johannes’ if I had been in school during the same time period.

Johannes and I were also taught about foreign nations in ways that were both comparable and distinctive. Johannes is unaware of the conditions of life outside of South Africa and his small town of Alexandra, as he has never been educated about any other country. When he first hears of America three years into his schooling, Johannes asks where that is and, when he is informed that it is “overseas,” asks, “Where’s overseas?” (152). Unlike South African education for whites, teachers prioritize tribal education over a more modern education relating to the outside world. Black, or Bantu, schools are strictly separated by tribal affiliations, even when the students themselves feel no connection to the tribe they are deemed part of. Johannes experiences this problem when he is taken to register for school, being told by the principal, “technically, the fact that [your] father is a Venda makes [you] ineligible to attend this tribal school” (128).

Contrarily, Americans value foreign relations, generally believing that everybody should be familiar with customs and basic information about most nations around the world. The ninth grade curriculum features a class entitled “Global Studies,” in which students are taught the histories, politics, and controversies of a multitude of nations. The books selected for reading in World Literature include depictions of life in a number of countries, including Kaffir Boy’s illuminating portrayal of South African lifestyle. However, despite these obvious differences to Johannes’ education, parallels can be drawn between the pride instilled in Johannes for his country and people and the respect and appreciation of American history and culture that American children are taught from an early age to hold.

One aspect of Johannes’ knowledge that most Americans would consider superior to their own is his proficiency in foreign languages. According to his mother, Johannes speaks Venda in the house, Shaangan when he has the opportunity, and “when they are out at play… Zulu and Sisotho” (128). It is later revealed that Johannes is also fluent in Afrikaans and his English is rapidly improving. This far exceeds the paltry 1.15 languages spoken by the average American, and Johannes hardly considers is a major accomplishment. However, while Americans are not particularly talented in linguistics, American schools do try to teach students at least one language besides English. Many schools, including my own, require students to take at least one year of a world language. Also, religious organizations associated with other languages often try to teach students that language, although their effort is half-hearted at best. I attended ten years of Hebrew school, and, while I am fluent in Hebrew and did not expect to learn much, I was not taught anything besides the alphabet and a few basic words and phrases. Johannes’ knowledge of six languages not only transcends my own knowledge, but it also dwarfs that of white South Africans.

Johannes notices this during an encounter with a group of predictably racist white children at a zoo. They were trading insults with Johannes’ group of black students, but Johannes finds it intriguing and almost ironic that “they couldn’t understand a single word of Tsonga… yet we understood everything they were saying in Afrikaans” (204). White superiority over blacks was an idea ingrained in the minds of all South Africans during apartheid, yet it was unnoticed by most that the majority of blacks were more knowledgeable than their white counterparts regarding languages. Likewise, it was equally unnoticed that the average black child in South Africa, while destitute and impoverished, knew more languages than the average, middle-class American adult.

In Johannes Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy, Johannes is at first unwillingly, but eventually enthusiastically, educated. In the section of the memoir entitled “Passport to Knowledge,” his journey through school is documented in detail. The reader is informed about many aspects of Johannes’ education, most of which are vastly different from a typical American education. Particularly, the portion relating to racism, prejudice, and foreign affairs contrasts heavily with the American schooling I have received. However, the same portion contains many similarities to my education, especially pertaining to the values that educators would like students to hold, including pride in one’s country and knowledge of foreign languages.

Even though many basic values taught to American and South African children are similar, others are decidedly different, most notably the overtly racist beliefs South African schools encourage students to hold. Johannes Mathabane was able to optimize his education by choosing to learn everything he can academically, but refusing to accept any generalizations or discriminatory comments as the truth until he could determine their merit from his own experiences. In choosing this path, Johannes affirmed the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s words, “Achievement has no color” by surging above expectations based on his race and acquiring what was rare for blacks in apartheid South Africa: an education.

 

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