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Apartheid's Contribution to South African Inclusive Education Policy

Johnnie Hay & Christa Beyers


The inclusive education movement has become internationalised in the sense that developed and developing countries have adopted the rhetoric, though the movement towards inclusion may be attributed to different reasons (Dyson & Forlin 1999:24). Daniels and Garner (1999 :1) elaborates on this by stating that in some countries "processes of what may be seen as inclusion may be associated with large-scale political, economic and social change, as in the context of oppressed and disfranchised groups in countries like South Africa." Artiles and Larsen (1998:6) add to this by stating that "similarities (in special education reform) between two nations may be produced by different forces or might serve different functions." South Africa, as a developing country, has embraced inclusive education in its policy development since the 1994 democratic elections, because of a possible few reasons. One of these may be the legacy of the exclusive society brought about by the policy of apartheid.


The authors want to highlight four primary reasons, which will be discussed. The interesting part is that all four relate very strongly to the system of apartheid (1948 - 1993) as well as colonialism (1652 - 1947) practised during the previous three centuries in South Africa.

The first reason, to our minds, why the educational authorities moved strongly in the direction of inclusion, was that South Africa disentangled itself from the isolation of the apartheid era, and thus had to align itself with international trends. During the interna-tional sanction years of the 1970s and 1980s South Africans were forced to rely on internal resources as well as on limited international exposure regarding various developments. In some instances the isolation had positive effects for the country - a good example in this regard is the development of an efficient arms industry. In other respects South Africa was beleaguered, and did not progress in tandem with interna-tional developments.

The behaviour of a beleaguered nation (in this instance the Afrikaners who were in power), tends to become overly rigid, clinging to known practices (Leach 1989:50) . New developments are treated with some mistrust and are not easily accepted. Inclusion was viewed with suspicion, and did not really receive the attention it deserved within South African special and general education.

Internationalization of the country after 1994 removed the isolation with regards to educational developments, and introduced inclusion as a forceful new thrust in special education.

The second reason for embracing inclusion can be found in the large number of African National Congress exiles who returned from abroad, and brought with them the most recent educational ideas. Many of these South Africans spent decades in deve-oped countries and escaped the isolation of ideas that those residing in the country was exposed to. Many of them were now appointed in key educational positions. As an example it can be mentioned that in our province a gentleman was appointed to the Special Needs Directorate who obtained his qualifications in special education in the United States. A lady was also appointed to drive inclusive education, after spending 23 years in Canada.

The third reason why inclusion was embraced had to do with the fragmented educa-tion system pre 1994. South Africa had no less than 17 different departments of edu-cation answering to the National Department of Education before 1994 (Du Toit 1996 : 9). The concept of inclusive education fitted neatly with the new policy of a unitary education system where racial classification as well as disability are no longer used to differentiate departments. The 18 different departments were now reduced to 9 provincial education departments, all of which resort under the National Department of Education. The governance of special schools was relocated to the provincial departments, and no longer administered through a separate, centralised department.

A After 45 years of apartheid, the democratically elected government was committed to transform South African society from its exclusive nature into an inclusive society on all levels. Inclusive education was a perfect way of including all marginalised learners into education for all - that included disabled learners, learners of colour and those neglect-ed through the years.

It is important at this stage to reflect on "transformation." Transform according to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1999) means "to change completely the appearance or character of something especially so that it is improved." This is in stark contrast to "reformation" which implies that "an improvement is made by e.g. changing the structure of something." which is actually encompassing the previous three, is that inclusion represented a powerful partner in transforming South African education and society. It coincided perfectly with the African National Congress' (hereafter called ANC) vision of a unified, egalitarian and democratic country, where the diversity of its people would be valued.

After 1994 a start was made to deliberately transform the South African society - not reform - implying that the character of society had to be changed completely. Inclusive education was, together with Outcomes-based Education, the educational vehicles to transform the face of South African education.

These four reasons are all linked to South Africa's unique colonialist and apartheid past - it is thus very true that in South Africa's instance a different force may have been at work to embrace inclusion (Artiles & Larsen 1998:6), if e.g. compared to the United Kingdom.


The authors work in a historically disadvantaged institution (HDI) where a student movement affiliated to the ANC, namely SASCO (South African Student's Congress), is viewed as to the right of the political spectrum. The other two student movements on the multi-campus institution are PASMA (Pan Africanist Student Movement Association) affiliated to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and AZASCO (Azanian Student Congress) affiliated to the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO).

From discussions/negotiations with some students affiliated these student movements, as well as an analysis of their campus media statements, it is clear that colonialism and apartheid have left serious scars. PASMA and AZASCO openly state that South Africa must be given back to Africans (implying black Africans) and be called Azania. Some statements on the campus even stated in direct terms that the land has been stolen from the "people" by colonialists, and that it should be returned. Statements further imply that the "people" have been excluded ("have been denied access") from decision-making, the economy and educational opportunities.

Similar sentiments have recently been echoed by media statements of the secretary-general of the PAC, who is a staff member of our institution. He reacted to the land issue in Zimbabwe, and stated that the land in South Africa must be returned to its people, or else a situation comparable to Zimbabwe's is on the cards. We interpret this kind of reaction as anger for being excluded from land for centuries.

Colonialist rule and especially apartheid meant exclusion in almost all spheres of life for people of colour. The following are a few examples of exclusive practices:

The forced dominance of the colonial powers, as well as of the Afrikaner government during apartheid, have thus left a legacy of mistrust and dis-empowerment, feelings of having been excluded for 342 years, and unresolved anger. No wonder that an educa-tional thrust such as inclusive education would have such a huge appeal in South Africa. In educational terms it would contribute substantially to the ideal of democratic education and a democratic society.

After the experience of exclusion for close on four centuries, it is understandable that any thrust dealing with inclusivity would be embraced. As stated in the abstract, a pendulum that swung through to the side of exclusivity for 342 years, will surely swing through to the complete opposite side once it has been freed? The legacy of apartheid has, to our view, thus contributed substantially to the appeal inclusive education has in South Africa at the start of the third millennium.


Four documents of the past three years have shaped the transforming special educa-tion policy in South Africa. These are the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy (1997), the Report of the National Commission on Special Needs in Education and Training and the National Committee on Education Support Services : Quality Education for All (1997), the Consultative Paper no 1 on Special Education (30 August 1999) and the Draft White Paper on Special Needs Education of 24 March 2000.

An analysis will now be conducted to highlight how exclusive practices of the past has influenced the policy documentation, and moved it into an inclusive framework.

White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy (1997):

The move towards an inclusive society is already found in the second paragraph of the then deputy-president Thabo Mbeki's foreword - "the concept of a caring society is strengthened and deepened when we recognize that disabled people enjoy the same rights as we do ...." (p i). This may be viewed as implying that South Africa did not experience a caring society before 1994?

The chapter on "Situation Analysis" starts with the following: "There is a serious lack of reliable information on the nature and prevalence of disability in South Africa. This is because, in the past, disability issues were viewed chiefly within a health and welfare framework. This led naturally to a failure to integrate disability into mainstream government statistical processes" (p 1). Although apartheid (and colonialism) are not mentioned directly, it is implied that apartheid policies excluded and marginalised disability statistics.

A section under Situation Analysis called "Disability and Exclusion" deals in more detail with exclusive practices of the past:

"The majority of people with disabilities in South Africa have been excluded from the mainstream of society and have thus been prevented from accessing fundamental social, political and economic rights.

The exclusion experienced by people with disabilities and their families is the result of a range of factors, for example: * the political and economic inequalities of the apartheid system; * a discriminatory and weak legislative framework which has sanctioned and reinforced exclusionary barriers. The key forms of exclusion responsible for the cumulative disadvantage of people with disabilities are poverty, unemployment and social isolation" (pp 2-4).

This section then continues to describe how apartheid contributed to these exclusionary factors.

A following section under "Situation Analysis" focuses on sectors experiencing high levels of exclusion, especially in the light of the past (pp 4-7).

Mention is then made under the section "An integrated national disability strategy" that the vision is a "society for all" (p18). "The pursuit of the goals of freedom from want, hunger, deprivation, ignorance, oppression and exclusion should underpin strategies for disability planning" (p 20). An inclusive society is thus envisaged to eradicate all previous forms of exclusion.

Report of the National Commission on Special Needs in Education and Training and National Committee on Education Support Services : Quality education for all: overcoming barriers to learning and development (1997):

In the foreword the following anti-exclusionary sentiments are stated: "The proposals emerging from this investigation are an attempt to address these areas, providing guidelines for the transformation of all levels and all aspects of education to meet the diversity of needs of the learner population, minimising, removing and preventing barriers to learning and development so that effective teaching and learning can occur for all.

The principles guiding the broad strategies to achieve this vision include: acceptance of principles and values contained in the Constitution and in the White Papers on Education and Training; human rights and social justice for all learners; participation and social integration; equal access to a single, inclusive education system; access to the curriculum; equity and redress; community responsiveness; and cost-effectiveness."

This foreword states clearly that transformation towards an inclusive education system is essential in all aspects of education - not only reformation. It is, however, in chapter 3, which deals with the current situation, that the exclusion of the past is stated unambiguously:

"The history of education for learners with special needs and education support services in South Africa, like much of the history of our country, reflects massive deprivation and lack of provision for the majority of people. The inequities evident in the areas of concern addressed by the NCSNET/NCESS can be directly attributed to those social, economic and political factors which characterised the history of South African society during the years of apartheid" (p 21).

Furthermore, "the divisions in the education system were reinforced under the apartheid system by separate education departments being governed by different legislation. The area of special needs was doubly fragmented - on the one hand by legislation which enforced separation among racial lines and on the other by a separation between "ordinary" learners in the mainstream and learners with "special needs" in a secondary system" (p 22).

These sentiments of a divided, fragmented and exclusionary South African past are echoed throughout the report, with specific reference to education and special educa-tion. Consultative Paper no 1 on Special Education : Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, First Steps (1999): These sentiments of a divided, fragmented and exclusionary South African past are echoed throughout the report, with specific reference to education and special educa-tion.

Consultative Paper no 1 on Special Education : Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, First Steps (1999):

"Developing the capacity of the education and training system to respond to inclusion will primarily involve recognising, addressing and preventing difficulties and exclusion" (p 1).

"Departmental, institutional and curriculum transformation will also require the participation of our communities so that social exclusion and negative stereotyping can be eliminated" (p 2).

"Recognizing that until now the education and training system has failed to accommodate fully a diverse range of learning needs and that as a result, high levels of learning difficulties and exclusion continue to be experienced, the Ministry is deeply committed to establishing an inclusive education and training system as part of our Constitutional responsibility to building an inclusive society" (p 8).

What is clear from these excerpts, is that apartheid is not really mentioned by name any longer, but replaced by exclusion. This may be because this document appeared in 1999, 5 years after the fall of apartheid, whereas the previous two documents were still very much part of the liberation era after apartheid.

Draft Education White Paper 5 : Special Needs Education - Building an inclusive education and training system (24 March 2000):

The first paragraph of the White Paper places South African special education in the historical context : "Special Needs Education is a sector where the ravages of apartheid were most evident. The segregation of learners on the basis of race was extended to incorporate segregation on the basis of disability ..." (p 4). It further states : "This policy framework outlines the Ministry's commitment to the provision of educational opportunities in particular for those learners who experience or have experienced learning difficulties or dropped out of learning arising from the inability of the education and training system to accommodate the diversity of learning needs and those learners who continue to be excluded from it" (p 6).

The issue of being excluded in whatever way, remains very sensitive.

From these citations it is clear that the history of exclusion plays an important part in forging the South African special education policy future. A previously exclusive society is replaced by (hopefully) an inclusive South African society, and exclusive education for a privileged minority is replaced by an inclusive ethos where quality education is promised to all.


Artiles and Larsen's (1998) statement that similarities in special education reform between two nations may be produced by different forces, or might serve different functions, makes a lot of sense in the South African situation.

The legacy of apartheid as well as colonialism has been a very strong force in embracing the anti-exclusionary ideology of inclusion. Other countries without such an exclusionary legacy may perhaps not view inclusive education in such an urgent light? One may also state that the drive towards inclusive education serves a slightly different function in the South African context than in other countries, as it is only one aspect of the transformation of this country's total society to an inclusive society.

Inclusive education in terms of education for all has thus found an unexpected partner in South Africa by the name of a society for all. Exclusion is replaced in society by inclusion on all levels.


T he inclusive education thrust in South Africa has been part of the democratization of the country after 1994. It is line with international trends but is also helping to eradicate the exclusionary practices of the apartheid era.

Caution will just have to be exercised that the ideological thrust is not so strong as to ignore practical realities of a developing country. In this regard the teacher : learner ratio, scarcity of education support services, limited physical resources and limited trained teachers will have to be accounted for.


Artiles A J and Larsen L A (1998) International perspectives on special education reform. European Journal of Special Needs Education, special issue 13(1), pp 5 - 133.

Beck D and Linscott G (1991) The Crucible - forging South Africa's future. Johannes-burg : New Paradigm Press.

Daniels H and Garner P (1999) World Yearbook of Education 1999 : Inclusive Education. London : Kogan Page.

Department of Education (1997) Quality education for all : overcoming barriers to learning and development. Report of the NCSNET/NCESS. Pretoria : CTP Printers.

Department of Education (1999) Consultative Paper no 1 on Special Education: Building an inclusive education and training system, first steps. Pretoria : Government Printer.

Department of Education (2000) Education White Paper 5 : Special Needs Education. Pretoria : Government Printer.

Du Toit L (1996) An introduction to specialised education. In : P Engelbrecht, S M Kriegler & M I Booysen (eds). Perspectives on learning difficulties : international concerns and South African realities. Pretoria : Van Schaik.

Dyson A & Forlin C (1999) An international perspective on inclusion. In : P Engelbrecht, L Green, S Naicker & L Engelbrecht (eds): Inclusive education in action in South Africa. Pretoria : Van Schaik.

Leach G (1989) The Afrikaners - their last Great Trek. Johannesburg : Southern Book Publishers.

Sparks A (1995) The mind of South Africa. London : Mandarin Paperbacks.

White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy (1997) Office of the Deputy President. Pretoria : Rustica Press.




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