OPINION: A smiling Hendrik Verwoerd is not the answer to the education crisis

"...while South Africa has made progress in providing access to education, it has yet to tackle the deeply entrenched legacy of apartheid, left by Hendrik Verwoerd" (Amnesty International)
"...while South Africa has made progress in providing access to education, it has yet to tackle the deeply entrenched legacy of apartheid, left by Hendrik Verwoerd" (Amnesty International)

“What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

So said Hendrik Verwoerd, the Architect of Apartheid, in support of the 1953 introduction of the Bantu Education Act, a system designed to separate education institutions along racial lines.

This man, and statements like these, are hugely triggering to the majority of South Africa’s population, yet Amnesty International SA is using him to get South Africans to sign a petition to improve education, to “wipe the smile off his face”.

The insensitive petition calls for the government to provide all schools with proper resources to teach basic, quality skills in reading and mathematics and to replace every school pit latrine with safe, clean toilets by 1 January 2021.

Also read: Why so many South African children struggle to read and write

Fulfilling his legacy

Their website displays a banner depicting a smiling Verwoerd, and the caption: “If we don't get behind education, we are fulfilling his legacy.”

They go on to explain “If Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid and apartheid education, looked back now, he would be smiling. Because unless we tackle the deep inequality he created in our education system, we risk fulfilling his legacy.”

“Together,” their website states, “we can tell our government to avoid fulfilling Verwoerd’s toxic legacy and instead give all children in South Africa a future to smile about.”


The human rights group plans to put images of a smiling Verwoerd up all over Johannesburg this week and call on the public to “sign the smile off” his face.

In a statement issued at the launch of this ill-conceived #SignTheSmileOff campaign on Monday, the group said “The legacy of racial discrimination in the South African education system, characterised by poor outcomes, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities and learning materials for tens of thousands of students, still looms large 25 years into freedom.”

Amnesty International SA executive director Shenilla Mohamed said: “Many schools serving our poorest communities rely on outdated and poorly maintained infrastructure and a dire lack of teaching resources that provides a wholly inadequate learning space for young people.”

Also read: The Department of Education’s proposed no repeat policy for grade R to 3 will do more harm than good

Dredging up dinosaurs

She added that the education system still “mirrors the apartheid years” and that “while South Africa has made progress in providing access to education, it has yet to tackle the deeply entrenched legacy of apartheid, left by Hendrik Verwoerd, that continues to result in massive inequalities in the country’s education system.”

While South Africa’s education system needs work, a lot of work, dredging up dinosaurs from the Apartheid era is not the way to go about it.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga are hard at work, making promises and implementing changes, while parents, educators and various stakeholders do all they can to ensure a quality education for our children.

Change is nevertheless slow, and some are contesting the introduction of certain policies.

However, while we support any petitions that call for urgent action to bring about improvements for our learners, teachers and education system, we can’t support one that brings Verwoerd back onto our streets.

You can choose to sign the petition here.

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Read more:

Coding and Robotics: not for young children!

Teacher development is critical to rescuing SA’s education system

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