In The Beginning: Indigenous Education in Pre-colonial Southern Africa

Formal education began officially in Europe during the First Industrial Revolution. Before then, European families and societies depended on informal methods of education to communicate and transfer values and ideas from one generation to the next. Similarly, in Southern Africa, before the beginning of colonialism and the establishment of the first formal education system in the 19th century, indigenous people that is, the Bantu and Khoisan peoples, depended on informal methods of education to extend values and ideas to their children. Even though informal methods were used, they were and still are counted as education, they were and still are meaningful, and therefore, are worth exploring.

San rock painting.
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Language Education

Language learning was one of the most important ways through which the indigenous people extended their values and ideas. These values and ideas were usually communicated imaginatively and spread through verses, sayings, and stories, which were typically told by elders. In addition, these verses, sayings, and stories, were also told to children to educate them about the art, music, and literature of their families. Language learning created a strong sense of belonging as you would expect, not only within the basic social unit, the nuclear family but, also within the extended family, and the greater community. A fine example of this could be found in looking at the differences in the languages spoken by the Bantu and Khoisan. While some Bantu people groups had similar languages, San and Khoikhoi people groups had vastly different languages. Although both were typified by clicks, the Khoikhoi had many more languages than the San. Thus, in such a diverse society (for its time), language learning not only helped people to communicate their values and ideas to their children but, it also helped to create and reinforce a sense of community.

Art, Music, and Dance

Art was also an important method of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa. The San, for example, recognized for their rock paintings and engravings, used rock art to share and pass on their way of life. Their rock art, found throughout the western regions of Southern Africa, usually included paintings of people dancing, people working together, as well as animals. What’s more, the San performed their paintings using animal hair or feathers and sticks as paintbrushes, ash, clay, and manganese oxide to make colours, and blood, egg whites, and liquid from plants to join colours together. On the other hand, the Bantu and Khoikhoi, largely known for their pottery, made and used pottery for cooking and keeping water. Similar to the San, pottery remains have also been found throughout the eastern regions of Southern Africa, signalling the Bantu’s journey southwards around 2000 thousand years ago. Once more, like language learning, both the Bantu and Khoisan people groups used art to communicate and pass on their culture to the next generation.

Music and dance education were also incredibly important methods of education. Music and dance were used for special events like weddings, funerals, and religious or traditional practices. For example, the Bantu used music and dance heavily during initiation ceremonies. Different songs were sung during different phases of initiation rituals. Yet again, like language learning, music and dance also created a strong sense of community. For instance, a San religious practice involving the trance dance generally created a sense of community between people because it involved younger and older men and women acting as one which not only allowed young people to learn from their elders but it also allowed for the transmission of culture.

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Initiation Schools

A further method of education was initiation. Initiation represented a period of seclusion in a boy’s life in which at or soon after reaching sexual maturity, a boy would be separated from society for a few months and put through a process aimed at preparing him for manhood. The initiation process included circumcision, physical tests, and lessons on discipline, strength, courage, manhood, and culture. Among the Basotho, the chief had the responsibility of setting up the initiation school known as lebello. He was also tasked with selecting the warrior, surgeon, and teachers who would lead the rituals. Relatedly, among the Tsonga, it was the chief who also had the responsibility of setting up the initiation school known as ngoma.

In both cultures, every few years, boys would be isolated for a few months and taken through an initiation process. Although initiation was a common practice for boys in many cultures, in some cultures, however, girls were also taken through an initiation process. Among the Zulu, for instance, like boys, girls were also isolated for a few months, every few years, and taken through an initiation process aimed at preparing them for womanhood. Significantly, not like initiation schools for boys which dealt with teaching boys about the qualities associated with manhood like strength and courage, in the initiation schools for girls, girls were often taught about sex and marriage. Nevertheless, language, art, music, and dance all played incredibly important roles in both traditional ceremonies as initiation processes were one of the areas where all these different methods of education worked together.

Indigenous Education

In addition, the different cultures of the indigenous people helped them gain skills which were, in their own right, another form of education. Both Bantu and Khoisan people groups had different ways of life. Even so, within each culture, there was a clear division of labour between men and women. For example, among the Bantu, while women worked as agriculturalists and cared for the family and home, men worked as pastoralists. Among the Khoisan, whilst women worked as gatherers of edible plants and cared for the family and home, men worked as hunters and herders. This division of labour created order within every family and community. The skills that were learnt from this way of life were taught to boys by letting them work with men, and girls by letting them work with women. In this way, children not only gained skills but were prepared for adulthood by watching as well as working alongside their elders.

Language, art, music and dance, together with initiation schools, may not have been formal methods of education but, taken together, they were important processes of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa. Formal education may have only been introduced to Southern Africa in the 19th century but even then, families and societies had established ways of imparting values and ideas from one generation to the next long before the arrival of Europeans. So, although the methods of education in pre-colonial Southern Africa were informal, it would still be mistaken to view them as lesser or not as processes of education because they were the means through which information was passed through generations.

References and Further Readings

Adeniji-Neill, D. & van Wyk, B. (2014). Indigenous Concepts of Education: Toward Elevating Humanity for All Learners. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

Barnard, A. (1992). Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Cambridge University Press

Booyse, J. J., le Roux, C. S., Seroto, J., & Wolhuter, C. C. (2011). A History of Schooling. Van Schaik Publishers

Christie, P. (1991). The Right to Learn: The Struggle for Education in South Africa. Sached Trust/Ravan Press Publication

McKenna, A. (2011). The History of Southern Africa. Britannica Educational Publishing

Schapera, I. (1934). The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa. Routledge & Kegan Paul

South African History Online (SAHO). (2020). The Khoisan. [Online]. Available:

Thompson, L. (2000). A history of South Africa. Yale University Press

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