A Proud History of Catholic Education
As the Church in South Africa celebrates the 200th anniversary of its establishment, it is a good time to pay tribute to the remarkable history and ongoing contribution of Catholic education in this country.
It is in the areas of education and health, especially, that the Catholic Church has made its mark in wider society in Southern Africa, as it has done in many parts of the world.
For this we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the missionaries who left their homes and families to uplift children whom successive governments were loath to give a chance at a good education, and therefore a better future.
Many great leaders in diverse fields of endeavour are products of that Catholic schooling, from schools that still exist, such as St Francis in Mariannhill or CBC St Boniface in Galeshewe, Kimberley, and some that have sadly closed, such as St Columba’s in Cape Town or St Aidan’s in Grahamstown. While most of our Catholic schools are now run and staffed by lay people, the labours of these missionaries continue to bear great fruits.
While most of our Catholic schools are now run and staffed by lay people, the labours of these missionaries continue to bear great fruits.
The vast majority of South Africa’s Catholic schools serve the poor, in townships and urban areas as well as in rural regions. In all measures of academic performance, these schools invariably outperform the national average.
The private schools, which are so few yet so prominent, maintain immaculate academic records, often at much lower fees than those of their counterparts.
But important as academic success is, our Catholic schools also raise generations of young people who have access to human development and are fed on the rich fruits of our faith.
The missionaries built all this, increasingly with lay involvement.
Of course, they didn’t always get it right. There were times when religious orders allocated disproportionate resources to white schools, and received fair criticism for it. But the religious orders were also heroic in fighting on behalf of the underprivileged. And in doing so, they smashed a large part of schools apartheid.
But the religious orders were also heroic in fighting on behalf of the underprivileged. And in doing so, they smashed a large part of schools apartheid.
When in 1975 the Dominican Springfield Convent School in Cape Town announced that it would enrol eight coloured girls, the Sisters issued a challenge to the mighty apparatus of the apartheid regime—and to the bishops.
The bishops responded decisively, after some misgivings about the timing of such a move. In January 1976, within months of Springfield’s announcement, the bishops’ conference announced that it would desegregate all its schools.
The regime’s threats and intimidation were futile. At least in private education, apartheid had suffered a significant defeat.
It was the second battle the apartheid regime had lost to the Catholic Church in the domain of education. Twenty years earlier, the Church nearly lost its education system. It took a colossal effort by the Church and the faithful to save it, one in which The Southern Cross was one of the main drivers.
Twenty years earlier, the Church nearly lost its education system. It took a colossal effort by the Church and the faithful to save it, one in which The Southern Cross was one of the main drivers.
With the enactment of the Bantu Education Act in 1953, the state sought to assume control of all schools, especially the mission and township schools which were providing better schooling than the gutter education the apartheid regime planned to provide for black children.
The future of Catholic mission schools seemed doomed as the government was threatening to phase out state subsidies within three years.
The bishops’ first plan was to reason with the government, but their strategy of appeasement and negotiations failed miserably. The third option was the most ambitious and improbable to execute in the short time left: to raise so much money that these schools could be run independently.
The bishops were faced with difficult options. They could close down the affected schools (as many other churches did), but that would have deprived children of an education. Or they could have handed these schools to the state, so at least the children would have some education.
The third option was the most ambitious and improbable to execute in the short time left: to raise so much money that these schools could be run independently.
The result was spectacular: the huge fundraising drive, internationally and among the faithful, raised £976000 (around R221 million in today’s value) in late 1955, with the appeal leading on the front page of The Southern Cross for eight straight weeks.
When we celebrate the bicentenary of South Africa’s Church, we must remember with gratitude the selfless missionaries who built the Catholic education system, those who preserved it even when the apartheid regime wanted it destroyed, and those who continue that great legacy today.