History explains why black South Africans still mistrust vocational training

A bust of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. Verwoerd believed that black people should know their place – and that included staying away from ‘white’ jobs. Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

Africa’s universities are attracting more and more students each year. In some cases these numbers are being driven by government policies designed to make universities more attractive among young people. In others, like Niger, degree systems have been overhauled to draw more students to tertiary education.

In South Africa, the rush of prospective students hoping to enrol turned tragic in 2012 when a woman was killed and 17 people were injured in a stampede at the University of Johannesburg.

The scramble for admission is simultaneously tragic and exciting. Tragic, because it demonstrates the subjection of many students to indecent conditions in an age of sophisticated registration technologies. And exciting, because it confirms an unprecedented quest for higher education opportunities thanks to progressive legislation and policy since 1997.

But while students battle for places at the country’s 25 universities, enrolment at the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges has lagged.

In 2006, 361,186 students enrolled in the colleges. In 2014, 538,000 students were estimated to have enrolled – a virtually flat growth rate over eight years.

On the other hand, enrolment at universities was 741,383 in 2006 and was estimated at more than one million in 2014.

The South African government, in its National Development Plan, notes:

Public colleges enrol an equivalent of one-third … of learners enrolled in higher education, when ideally the situation should be the other way round.

That’s in stark contrast with the Seychelles, Botswana and Mauritius, which all have far higher numbers of students enrolled in vocational training than those at university.

Why is this the case, particularly in a country whose severe skills shortage should mean that vocational training is a priority? Much of the answer seems to lie in history.

Similarities with US experience after emancipation

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries a debate raged in the US about whether recently emancipated slaves should pursue an academic or technical/vocational career. Sociologist W.E.B Du Bois supported the former view; Booker T. Washington, who established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, favoured the latter. The institute’s primary objective was to help former slaves develop marketable skills.

Nearly a century later a similar debate emerged shortly after several African countries achieved their freedom from colonial rule. Academic and author Philip J Foster undertook studies in Nigeria and Ghana to try and understand why so many Africans favoured university degrees over technical or vocational qualifications.

Quite simply, Foster found that academic education was more prestigious because its graduates were given access to:

… those occupations with the most prestige and … the highest pay.

Apartheid’s legacy

In an analysis of South Africa’s history of apprenticeship, academic Volker Wedekind notes that the practice has a “very specific history linked to slavery, indenturing, protection of white labour”. He writes:

These perceptions and values run deep in communities, and the ways in which the system benefited, exploited, excluded and included various categories of citizens have shaped those communities.

It is also worth exploring the laws that echoed the words of apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd:

There is no place for (the Bantu) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the spheres in which they live.

Legislation like the Mines and Works Act of 1911, the Apprenticeship Act of 1922, the Job Reservations Act of 1926 and 1953’s Bantu Education Act all conspired to keep black South Africans in the spaces apartheid carved out for them.

Leaving the past behind

This history of job discrimination lingers in the collective psyche of many black South Africans despite palpable changes in the political economy.

People continue to pursue the academic track because it is perceived as ultimately leading to supervisory or managerial job opportunities. The vocational or technical route is widely viewed as “low status”.

There is clearly a dissonance between these historically informed, lingering attitudes and the opportunities availed by the new democratic dispensation.

South Africa needs wide-ranging corrective measures at all levels of society to change people’s negative attitudes towards TVET qualifications. The government must allocate more money to TVET institutions, but pouring more money into the colleges won’t be enough alone.

The underlying values that drive students’ choices must be identified and incentive schemes offered as pull factors.


A longer version of this article will be published in the 1st Quarter 2016 edition of The Thinker.