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In a post a couple of months ago, on our old blog, I introduced some of the research we’ve done, and promised some follow up pieces describing how it might impact rural schools. Here I start by asking, what is rural?


As we speak with friends in the United States and other developed countries it quickly becomes clear that the word ‘rural’ carries a very different meaning, depending on where you are in the world. There are nuances to what rural communities look like, even within South Africa, but in a general sense when we speak about rural we mean communities characterised by; a subsistence existence, with a largely illiterate adult population; relatively dense populations (certainly compared to rural communities in developed countries) in terms of both people and schools (we have over 150 schools within 25 km of us); socioeconomic disadvantage, with high unemployment (ours is near 80%) and most people living on social grants (typically less than USD80 per month); poor services and maintenance of infrastructure, including roads, hospitals and schools.

So much for the broad characteristics of “place”. Perhaps more interesting is a sense of what place means for people. Most of our readers will know at least a high- (or in most cases a low-) lights package of South Africa's history: from the migrations and wars of the Khoisan and other indigenous populations, to colonisation under both the Dutch and British, the repressive apartheid state of much of the 1900's, to the largely peaceful transition to democratic governance under Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

The point about history, of course, is that it shapes the present, and this is nowhere more true than in our rural schools. Most are located in former homelands (such as the Transkei and Ciskei in the Eastern Cape Province), which under the apartheid regime's policy of "separate development" were areas allocated to black Africans to live. These areas tended to be located on marginal agricultural land that could barely support the dense rural settlements. The migrant labour system meant that most able-bodied men and many women sought work in the mines or cities, leaving grandparents to take care of children. The beautiful rolling hills that typify many of these former homelands add further geographical complexity: summer rains make rivers and roads impassable for students and teachers alike, and “routine” journeys to school can take as much as three hours out of the day.

To add to these spatial and socioeconomic challenges, education for black Africans under apartheid was a watered-down affair that was designed to prepare people for a life of manual labour. Very few quality schools existed outside of the church schools that many of the struggle era leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others attended. Poor rural communities were responsible for providing their own classrooms, and rural schools to this day are characterised by ailing infrastructure and in some cases even "mud schools", which have featured in the media in recent years. These patterns were left largely undisturbed by the transition to democratic governance in the 1990's, and schools continue to be marked by deep challenge. A multiplicity of disruptions, often legitimate, mean that rural schools struggle to establish the routines and rhythms that characterise high performing schools.

So when we talk about rural schools, the term is loaded with the burden of a complex historical and geographical context. However, as we’ll see in my next piece, the story isn’t only a depressing one…


Stay informed. Stay inspired.

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