New book – “Race for Education: Gender, White Tone, and Schooling in South Africa” by Mark Hunter

Antipode International Advisory Board member, Mark Hunter (University of Toronto;, here tells us about why he wrote his new book, Race for Education: Gender, White Tone and Schooling, in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2019)…

Cover (used here with permissions): Lexi Bella’s mural of student activist Zulaikha Patel, New York.

South Africa’s apartheid system rested on the segregation of all aspects of life including education, with white schools funded nearly 20 times more than black schools at the height of white minority rule. Consequently, when democracy was won in 1994, the African National Congress placed schooling at the centre of its plans to build a nonracial and more equitable society. Yet instead of education being a progressive force for equality, by the 2010s, a wave of student protests reflected massive anger at continued racism and high fees in the system. Following families and schools in Durban for nearly a decade, Race for Education sheds new light on South Africa’s political transition and the global phenomenon of education marketisation. The book rejects simple descriptions of the country’s move from “race to class apartheid” and reveals how “white” phenotypic traits such as skin colour retain value in the schooling system even as the multiracial middle class embraces prestigious linguistic and embodied practices the book calls “white tone”.

Some of the themes in the book have been gestating, often uncomfortably, in my life for over 30 years. I first lived in South Africa in 1988 to work at a school in a township in what is now the Eastern Cape province. To work at this mission school, it wasn’t necessary to be a qualified teacher, nor a Christian – I gained the position as a 17-year-old with three A-levels from the United Kingdom. How did I arrive there? The reason, of course, speaks to a long history of uneven North-to-South connections: of missionaries, capital, and settlers, and specifically some Western people take a “gap year” between high school and university to volunteer in poorer countries. The Catholic nuns who ran the mission school welcomed me in part because I am “white”; thus, it was assumed, I was a legitimate purveyor to “black” children of modern Western culture. Related, I am a native English speaker, whereas other teachers spoke isiXhosa at home. English then, as now, had status and cache.

As a product of Britain and its colonial worldview, I didn’t particularly question the privileges that took me to South Africa – I was, by definition, doing “good”. However, living in a township meant that I befriended many people who suffered the daily humiliation and material poverty apartheid’s policies caused. I also encountered some white people who questioned whether black people even had the capacity to learn at school. In the mission library, I stumbled across a book called Marx, Money, Christ, and it was the Marx part that best explained South Africa’s racial capitalism, including the staggering level of inequality in the country – the cheap black labour that underpinned everyday white comfort and even bolstered the mission school’s relative wealth. (The school was richer in terms of infrastructure than the government school with leaky roofs I left in Thatcherite Britain.)

After returning home to attend university, I swapped studying physics for politics and development, and I spent a lot of time working with the tail end of the anti-apartheid movement. Since then, I have been fortunate to study, work, live and research in South Africa for all or part of most years. I spent the 2000s researching and writing a book (Love in the Time of AIDS [Indiana University Press, 2010]) on the gendered political economy of an HIV/AIDS epidemic that affects one in three people in some parts of the country. It was when I was living in an informal settlement for this project that the schooling system’s unforgiving race-class contours struck me. Young people educated in formerly “white” and “Indian” schools – schools with native English-speaking teachers – were most likely to access institutions set up to fight HIV as well as jobs that provided economic security and health benefits.

An important feature of the South African education system is that the best schools, public and private, charge high fees. In the late-apartheid period, the government wanted to reform and prolong white minority rule by encouraging the seven percent of public schools built for white people to admit black students and charge fees. However, after 1994, the democratically-elected government did not change this trajectory; it said that the state should focus on redistributing money to poorer schools. This semi-privatized model is not unusual in the global South where schooling has rarely been comprehensive and free. Yet theoretical models tend to be drawn from the North where from the 1980s governments encouraged quasi/internal markets that gave parents more choice over schooling, but where extra expenses do not extend to fees.

Specifically, Race for Education combines detailed ethnography with archival material and oral histories. The arc of the study begins in the 1950s, when apartheid’s social engineers established one of the most – perhaps the most – racially and spatially planned education systems in the world. The apartheid planners’ vision was of local schools for local populations in racially defined suburbs (but, for whites, also class-defined suburbs). I follow scholars in labelling this period of segregation one of racial modernism.

However, in the 1970s, class divisions increased in society, and, starting in 1976, white private schools began to admit a tiny number of black students. I use the term marketised assimilation to draw attention to what I consider the first period of schooling desegregation (roughly from 1976 to the late 1990s). During this time, a limited number of better-off black children with an “ability to be assimilated” (in the words of one school) were admitted into white schools. Contrary to the belief that the end of apartheid represented a rupture from what came before it, I stress continuities between early desegregation from the 1970s and the desegregation of white public schools in the 1990s.

This analysis of the initial desegregation period allows me to show that, from the late 1990s and 2000s, competition among schools, and among parents intensified, resulting in what I call the racialised market. Gendered cultural signals of whiteness – a school’s victory on the rugby field, its rejection of “black hair”, its success at imparting a “white accent” – became key grounds on which formerly white schools fought to retain prestige, justify high fees and equip learners for a labour market that had shifted from manufacturing to services.

Influenced by Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, and feminist approaches to historical-ethnography, this book therefore shows that marketisation does not just benefit better-off families; it reconstitutes and works through racialised and gendered differences. A central aim of this book is to show how the marketised schooling system feeds from and reconstitutes the valuing of certain phenotypic traits and racial-cultural attributes.

My time living outside of South Africa in Canada and Morocco convinced me that the forces shaping South Africa were not exceptional. At the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, where I have taught for the past 12 years, student numbers have doubled, and many learners are children of first-generation immigrants to Canada. Faculty and students work hard, but rising fees mean that the majority of learners leave with large debts. Some graduates find high-paying jobs, whereas “qualification inflation” devalues the degree for many others. Meanwhile, in 2015, aspects of Canada’s colonial structuring of education were exposed when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report described the government’s past policy of using residential schools to forcefully assimilate indigenous peoples as “cultural genocide”.

Morocco, the third place I stay every year (my partner is an Arabic sociolinguist), is a country where youth unemployment robs young people of a future, and there has been a rapid rise of prestigious, private French – and now increasingly English – schools for a middle class willing to pay to avoid public schooling.

Thus, if my privileged movements are in any way representative, the issues this book considers – an increased amount of education in the context of marketised systems and racially toned hierarchies of prestige – apply across the globe.

This book has several implications for radical geographers. First, although the discipline has contributed greatly to literature on the marketisation/neoliberalisation of education, race is often not foregrounded – that is seen as formative of changes and not something reshaped by “neoliberalism”. Second, the existing education literature tends to be Northern-centric, so theory is constructed from what amounts to a limited number of cases and in settings where basic education is usually free – we know much more about London than Lagos, Chicago than Casablanca. Given that the biggest expansion of schooling in recent decades has been in the global South, we need to understand how schools provide advantages in different ways in different geographies. Markets vary, as do racialized hierarchies such as those embedded in language and segregation. In general, I think it can be said that those of us with the privilege to work in academia know less than we think about how education systems reproduce or challenge privilege.