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  • Between Worlds: German missionaries and the transition from mission to Bantu Education in South Africa by Linda Chisholm
  • Mark Hunter (bio)
Linda Chisholm (2017) Between Worlds: German missionaries and the transition from mission to Bantu Education in South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press

When student activists demanded free decolonised higher education the government quite quickly conceded the principle that higher education should be free for the poor. Yet questions remain about what decolonised education means—not least because 80 per cent of the population is now Christian and the middle class remains heavily invested in Anglophone schooling. In Between Worlds, Linda Chisholm untangles some of the intricate threads that tie together religion and education in South Africa. The conventional understanding begins with recognition that mission schools harboured all of the early leaders of the African National Congress from John Dube to Nelson Mandela. It is frequently said that the 1953 Bantu Education Act destroyed the mission school system and reoriented black education along ethnic lines. Yet such a summary statement misses out a lot of important details, as the book convincingly argues.

Chisholm’s empirical window is the Lutheran Church and specifically the German Hermannsburg mission. A number of other studies, most notably Jean and John Comaroff’s work on the London Missionary Society, also explore a distinct group of missionaries. However, by focusing on a relatively small mission group, Chisholm reminds us of the multiple and varied interactions that shaped Europe and Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hermannsburg itself may be a ‘small village in a picturesque but rural and agricultural area in northern Germany’ but its missionaries went on to develop a network of missions in Natal, Zululand, and the western Transvaal (1). [End Page 136]

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first three chapters consider the period before the onset of Bantu Education. Chapter One emphasises the transnational links in the making of mission networks, Chapter Two discusses the well-known Bethel Training Institute, and Chapter Three describes the interaction between chiefs, missionaries, and the government. Chapters Four and Five highlight the transfer to Bantu Education in Natal, including the vital question of the language of instruction. Chapter Six looks at how Umpumulo Teacher Training Institute developed into a theological seminary and fostered Black Consciousness thinking. Chapters Eight and Nine explore schooling in the homelands of Bophuthatswana and KwaZulu and Chapter Ten concludes the book. Between Worlds therefore covers a lot of ground. It is well illustrated with maps and photographs, and written in a clear style. Every chapter details the negotiations and contestations in play in the missionary world.

Language, curriculum issues, and the workings of homelands are three particular issues into which this book offers original insights. The conventional wisdom is that mission schools were English-medium while Bantu Education schools promoted African languages. The shift between them was part of the state’s ethnic project that became consolidated in the bantustans in the 1960s and 1970s. Chisholm, however, shows that Hermannsburg missions already gave considerable attention to African language education in the years before apartheid, in part because missionaries’ main emphasis lay in the schools’ religious purpose (79). ‘In all languages, the first textbook was the bible’ (82). Moreover, Chisholm shows that there was no radical break in language policy between mission education and the early years of Bantu Education.

To support her arguments on the curriculum, Chisholm spent a lot of time digging into mission archives. She found that mathematics and science books were not available in African languages while English readers contained racist stereotypes such as the story of ‘Lazy Jim’, a young black gardener who works for a white family. The illustrations tended to locate Africans in rural areas, in nature, among animals (89).

Chisholm also encourages us to see homeland education in new light. Since the homelands were illegitimate apartheid creations, and since today many poorly performing schools are located in these spaces, it is tempting to conclude that the homeland system was an unfortunate chapter in South African schooling. Yet before attaching too much causal power to homelands we need to recognise that almost all black African secondary [End Page 137] schools were...


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pp. 136-138
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