History: Lovedale Missionary School, where many black intellectuals and African leaders such as Thabo Mbeki were educated. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
History: Lovedale Missionary School, where many black intellectuals and African leaders such as Thabo Mbeki were educated. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

BETWEEN WORLDS: German Missionaries and the Transition from Mission to Bantu Education in South Africa
Linda Chisholm
Wits University Press

Mission schools have a mixed reputation in former colonies. They are lauded for offering a liberal and sound education when the state failed to do so, but they are also considered to have played a large role in colonial conquest.

Many well-known South African leaders attended mission schools, including Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Ellen Kuzwayo.

However, in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela relates the mixed messages he received at mission schools in the Eastern Cape. At his primary school in Qunu, his teacher Miss Mdingane gave the young Rolihlahla his English name Nelson.

"The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture and British institutions were automatically assumed to be superior," he writes.

"There was no such thing as African culture."

Later, he attended the Clarkebury Institute, where, he writes: "For the first time, I was taught by teachers who had themselves been properly educated. Several of them held university degrees, which was extremely rare."

The college was founded on land donated by the Thembu king Ngubengcuka, illustrating the close ties that existed before apartheid between missions and traditional leaders.

One of the aims of a new book by Prof Linda Chisholm of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation is to point out these binary perceptions of mission schooling.

In her book, Between Worlds: German Missionaries and the Transition from Mission to Bantu Education in South Africa, she explores the Hermannsburg missions, which were located in the then Western Transvaal, Natal and Zululand. The kind of education the missions offered was not uniform and neither were the intentions behind it, Chisholm points out, adding that each had their encounters with the state and Bantu Education, which was introduced in 1953.

Chisholm says she came to the topic by chance. The former adviser to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga during the Limpopo textbook crisis says: "The textbook saga raised for me the question of what sort of systems and situations, as far as textbooks were concerned, the post-1994 government had built upon.

"Were they fairly well developed or were the new systems built up from scratch? Were textbooks freely available in the early missionary period before apartheid, when we know there were perpetual campaigns regarding the availability of stationery and books?

"The records and correspondence of the officials of the Bantu Education Department who would have dealt with this do not seem to exist, and it was suggested to me that I look at mission records."

On a trip to visit family in Germany, she found herself close to the Hermannsburg Mission Society Archive. After looking through the archive she realised there was a "treasure trove" of information that went beyond textbooks.

"It was clear to me that mission education did not end in a neat and clear-cut way and there was a great deal of material here to show some discontinuities between the mission and apartheid contexts."

She says she tries to show in the book that while there was compliance with apartheid policy, specifically because "they agreed with the question of mother tongue education that apartheid ideologues insisted on", there was also difference of opinion and opposition on questions such as the role of traditional authority in education.

Some black stakeholders supported the missionary position but others were in conflict. In the Western Transvaal, a group calling themselves the Agtertrekkers broke away to form their own school, demanding state-controlled, secular schooling free from mission control. However, several African Lutheran pastors, such as those at the Umpumulo College, backed the German missionaries in their quest to continue their schools.

Many mission teachers — including Paulina Dlamini, who had achieved a degree of independence from traditional authority through her post — were similarly loyal. Her memoir, Paulina Dlamini: Servant of Two Kings, was published in 1986 by the Killie Campbell Library and Natal University Press. Chisholm provides some detail in her book of Dlamini’s background and conversion to Christianity.

Students were not uniformly obedient. At the Bethel Training Institute, a seminary near Lichtenburg, students burnt down the school on May 14 1953, a month before the reading of the Bantu Education Bill in Parliament.

Police investigating the fire found pamphlets listing their grievances: inadequate diet, bad accommodation and the unjust expulsion of a student. All 184 students at the school were arrested. The incident can be seen as part of the Defiance Campaign, which had been launched countrywide in 1952 in protest against apartheid laws.

Chisholm says that the fire "threw into sharp relief" the belief and practice that existed at Bethel, a principal Hermannsburg institutions.

For students, there were conflicting signals about their participation in governance, and the fire "asserted the power of students in a context fraught with powerlessness, indecision and uncertainty". The turbulence facilitated the takeover of these schools by the state and their subsequent integration into the system of Bantu Education.

Probing whether the German missionaries were Nazi supporters, Chisholm says the Hermannsburgers were conservative in their politics but "their Lutheranism posited a strict separation between church and state and so they did not respond positively to Hitler’s overtures to become a church associated with the state".

In theory, many of the ideas underlying the missionaries’ ideology was of a piece with the kind of thinking underpinning apartheid, says Chisholm.

One of their thinkers, Heinz Dehnke, who taught homeland leader Lucas Mangope, stated that western culture had corrupted African culture and that a return to indigenous modes and practices was necessary. He advocated an "indigenised" education along ethnic lines.

However, Micah Kgasi a teacher at the Hermannsburg school at Hebron, expressed in his book What is Education? (Lovedale Press, 1949) a concern with overcoming political and social inequality through a secular education that was open to the world.

The early Hermannsburgers who arrived in British colonial Natal in 1854 were from a humble rural and agricultural background and their organisation was highly gendered and patriarchal, says Chisholm. They were not of a mind with the young missionaries who came after the Second World War, who were deeply self-searching and, in keeping with a changing local and global context, adopted a more liberal stance.

Chisholm’s main aim with the book is to put into perspective some of the more ahistoric understandings of SA’s past by drawing attention to the complexity of issues as they pertained between different social actors in education.