It is self-evident, or should be, that the Bantu Education Act of 1953 had, and still has, a large, systemic and persistent detrimental effect on the South African economy. While the reasons for its imposition are still being debated – historian Hermann Giliomee, in a 2009 SAJE article that I recently reread, argues that it had more to do with the demands of an industrialising economy than with “racist obsessions” – the Apartheid government’s reluctance to teach black kids science and mathematics are still pervasive in South African society. Consider that, even today, for every 10000 black children that enter first grade, only one graduates with an A in mathematics.

Before the Bantu Education Act, most coloured and black education were undertaken by missionaries. In a new paper, Robert Ross, Russel Viljoen and I investigate the determinants of success at these schools (pictured) in the 1849 census of Cape missionary station residents. We find several causes: age, the length of residence at the station and the type of missionary society that ran the station matter in explaining literacy. The latter is interesting because traditionally Protestant missionaries were seen as producing more educated followers, compared to Roman Catholic stations. (More recent work by Nathan Nunn, however, shows that the effect of Protestant missionaries are predominantly on female followers, while Roman Catholics tend to educate men.) Our contribution is to show that there is large variety even within Protestant missionary societies: while the residents of stations run by the Free Church of Scotland like Lovedale in the Eastern Cape, for example, achieved high literacy rates, the residents at other stations, like those run by the South African Missionary Society were not so fortunate. The school at Lovedale would produce some of South Africa’s most famous black leaders, including ZK Mathews and Govan Mbeki, father of Thabo and Moeletsi, who, incidentally, was named in honour of Edward Govan, the Scottish missionary who founded Lovedale.

(c) Johan Fourie
So what? Well, what Nunn and others find is that these early missionary activities (they consider twentieth century missionary activities in Africa) still have persistent effects on education today. Is it possible, then, that South African missionary activities more than a century ago still matter for today? Perhaps. Early results show what seems to be a persistent link between the variation in literacy in 1849 and education outcomes in  the 1996 census. While these results are still tentative, they suggest that the education inequalities of today are not only a consequence of twentieth century Apartheid policies.

But a history of racially segregated education not only had a long-run effect on South Africa’s education system: as one would expect, it also had severe negative impact on the labour market. A recent working paper by Rulof Burger, Servaas van der Berg and Dieter von Fintel show that the large increase in the unemployment rate after the democratic elections are not only due to demographic pressures and a static labour market (as previously thought), but also due to a change in education policy. Realising that a large number of schoolchildren were actually over-age (older than 18 and still in school) and that these young adults were diverting resources from younger learners, the Department of Education decided to impose an age-limit of 20 years. This forced many kids – who chose to stay in school rather than enter the labour market with no qualification – into an already tight labour market, increasing unemployment. The increase in the unemployment rate after 1994 was thus simply a statistical correction: these kids were already unemployable but biding their time in the Apartheid schooling system.

Unemployment was traditionally seen as a post-1994 problem. It is not. Not only is bad education persistent, but so too the unemployment it creates.