The Development of the Character of Comparative Education in Southern Africa

As a result of South Africa’s colonial history and its relationship with Europe, Comparative Education, as a formal field of study, enters the academy at a later stage than it does in the metropolitan world. Educational borrowing, and more self-conscious comparison, is a profoundly important component of the country’s educational history, but Comparative Education itself only becomes a field of study in the second half of the 20th century.  It is really only in the middle of the 1960s, at least a decade and a half after Comparative Education had become institutionalised in Europe and the United States, that it is introduced into universities and colleges in South Africa. The moment of its entry, as Bergh and Soudien (forthcoming) explain, is also fraught with difficulty because central to the apartheid state’s plans is the intention to use education for the purposes of racial separation. Key elements of these plans included the notorious Extension of University Education Act in 1959 (Anderson, 2002:22) which mandated the exclusion of people of colour, students and faculty, from white universities and instituted the establishment, in time, of ten new ethnic universities, including the Universities of Zululand (for people classified as Zulu), the Western Cape (for those classified coloured), Durban-Westville (for people classified Indian), the University of the North (for people classified Tswana) and the University of Transkei (for people classified Xhosa). Significantly, this apartheid state expected the higher education community to provide the intellectual ballast for its policies and to ensure their production and reproduction. The Afrikaans component of this community, while not entirely trusted by the state, nonetheless enjoyed a favoured relationship with it and was particularly required to play the role of its intellectual hand-maiden.

The entry of Comparative Education into this environment was, not unexpectedly, for two reasons, controversial. Firstly, the apartheid state did not trust educationists in general, and some comparative educationists in particular. It created, as a result, its own cadre of experts or quasi-"academic-practitioners", ignoring the experiences and knowledge base of academics at universities. This development had two consequences: some scholars found themselves deliberately ignored, while others, such as those who enjoyed a modicum of recognition and who went out of their way to demonstrate their loyalty to the apartheid state, were drawn into its inner circle. Focusing their attention in this latter group, significant critics such as Herman (n.d) have characterized the posture of the Afrikaans universities and their approach to Comparative Education with respect to the political authority of the apartheid state as being compliant and even complicit with its apartheid philosophy - the approach they took, he argued, “… was a convenient way to avoid critical sociological, economic and political issues facing South African education under apartheid….” Elsewhere, he has suggested that “academics in education faculties at Afrikaans-medium universities have to a large extent been seen to acquiesce with Apartheid structures” (1993: 22).  While it is true that Afrikaans universities began to close ranks, a process intensified by the hostility of the historically English-speaking white universities’, who were more liberal, and also more ambiguous in their attitude towards apartheid, it is also true, thus revealing the second dimension of this period of controversy, that there was a debate taking place within this community about the place of Comparative Education in the Fundamental Pedagogics (FP) (based on phenomenology and also an attempt to articulate education as a distinct discipline)  panoply. Correct as it might be to say that there were important Afrikaner scholars who sought to shoe-horn the field into FP, there were significant others who resisted attempts to appropriate CE into the government’s racist ideology. In the camp of the former were formidable figures such as Potgieter (1972: 8) and Van Zyl (1986: 43-5), who attempted to re-configure it as a part-discipline of FP with a concern “not [for]… building up a specific system, but [for]… the pedagogical interpretation and evaluation of existing systems which must naturally be seen in their particular historical perspective....”

Others within the Afrikaans community were more inclined not to seek this alignment for Comparative Education and worked within the more conventional political science and sociological frameworks of the discipline. Dekker and Van Schalkwyk (1989), who wrote a popular Comparative Education text, Modern Education Systems, worked, for example, in the systems and forces tradition of Hans, Kandel and Schneider.

The situation at the new historically black universities at the time of the entry of the discipline into higher education was complex. Dominated by Afrikaans faculty members, they tended to take their lead from the intellectual shifts that were taking place in the alma maters of their professors. Comparative Education in these institutions, as a consequence, was little different in character to what it was in the Afrikaans universities.

Given their historical relationships with the United Kingdom and, contradictorily their financial and political dependence on the apartheid state, English-speaking white universities were in an equally complex position. While much was made in these institutions of the right of the university to academic freedom, their general orientation to the state tended, as Michau (1982: 68) remarked, towards pragmatism. This was particularly evident in the approaches taken towards Comparative Education. In the few institutions where the subject was introduced, such as the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town, a range of approaches to Comparative Education developed. Interestingly, while the texts available in these institutions (and also the fact that many academics would have had their training with doyens in the field such as King and Holmes in the United Kingdom) ensured that the kinds of discourses that were dominant in the United States and United Kingdom would reproduce themselves in these institutions too, namely systems theory approaches, there were also substantial Marxist and neo-Marxist analyses emerging.

The final historical point to be made in describing the early days of the field relates to developments outside of South Africa itself. Significantly, the only higher education institution that exists outside of South Africa at the time is found in Basutoland (to become Lesotho after independence in 1962) where the Pius XII College is established in 1945. This college essentially operates under the aegis of the University of South Africa until 1964 when it becomes the University of Basutoland, Bechuanaland Protectorate and Swaziland (later to become the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) (

Important in bringing this assessment of the early days of Comparative Education into South Africa to a close is recognizing how local circumstances influenced the conditions of the field’s development. Particularly important, is recognizing how fractured the field was at its moment of birth.