Why Did Many Black People Go to the Mission Schools in South Africa?

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  • Apr 02, 2023

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The introduction of formal schooling was a new experience among children of indigenous people in South Africa. This came through missionaries as they introduced mission schools. Missionaries introduced mission schools in South Africa for various reasons such as converting blacks to Christianity, and change morality, and standards of behavior. Some of these reasons were covert (hidden) while others were overt (open). However, another perspective is that mission schools were, among other things, meant to indoctrinate indigenous people by, for example, using the scripture and civilization. This article wishes to extrapolate the facts with regard to the above notion by reporting on the experiences of former learners (who were children then) of mission schools.

Definition of Terms

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the article, some key terms will be defined. ‘Children’ refers to minors who are still under the care of adults. ‘A mission’ in this context refers to an organization that spreads Christian faith, holds a series of religious services, etcetera. Missionaries are people who are sent to spread the Christian gospel in a community. Mission schools are those institutions of learning at which Christian faith, religious services, etcetera are spread. ‘Former learners’ refers to graduates and or dropouts of an institution of learning such as a formal school. A ‘formal school’ also refers to a mission school. ‘Students’ refers to school learners. ‘Schools’ in this article refers to formal pre-college and pre-university formal institutions of learning in which teaching takes place according to an agreed formal curriculum, syllabi, etcetera.

Aims and Objectives of Mission Schools

Different aims and objectives of mission schools have been cited by various people from contrasting points of view. There seem to be two basic subjective schools of thought with regard to the aims and objectives of mission schools in South Africa. According to Nwandula (1987), a dominant trend in the writing on mission schools in South Africa viewed the development of missionary education as having been evolutionary and as having taken place peacefully. As a result, many missionaries were hailed as having brought the blessings of Christianity and civilization to Africans. One of the aims of the mission schools was to use education to ‘Christianize and civilize the heathen’ as per the views of Du Plessis (1911), Loram (1927), and Jones (1970). The ‘heathen’ referred to were indigenous Africans of non-European descent. They were also regarded as uncivilized by missionaries who judged them on their subjective norms and values as well as on their other belief systems and behaviors.

On the other hand, there is the opinion of Majeke (1952) who, from an economic and political point of view, maintains that missionary education, which was provided in mission schools, aimed at supplementing the state’s legislation such as the then Constitution of South Africa and the 1950 Group Areas Act to ensure the continuance of white dominance in South Africa. Freire (1973) and Aronowitz and Giroux (1985) also respectively interpret the above notion as a strategy that is often used by any dominant party in any state to perpetuate the reproduction of labor.

Activities of Mission Schools

Mission schools in South Africa were usually organized along racial lines with separate schools for black and white children. The curriculum for black children was designed to serve the interest of colonial rulers and had little connection with their lives. The schools were used as a tool for socialization, indoctrination, and training. The curriculum aimed at teaching black children to be obedient, and subservient, and to accept their inferior status in society. They were taught subjects such as religious studies, English, basic arithmetic, and manual labor skills such as farming, carpentry, and domestic work.

On the other hand, white children were given a more comprehensive education, which included subjects such as history, geography, science, and mathematics. They were also encouraged to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, which helped to develop their physical and social skills.

Mission Schools Roles

Despite the limitations of the curriculum, mission schools played a significant role in the development of education in South Africa. They provided access to education for children who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend school. In many cases, mission schools were the only schools available in rural areas, and they helped to promote literacy and numeracy among the local population.

Mission schools also provided a platform for the development of African intellectualism and activism. Many of the leading figures in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid in South Africa were educated in mission schools. These schools were instrumental in developing a new generation of African leaders who would go on to challenge the oppressive colonial regime.

Furthermore, mission schools played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity in South Africa. The schools were used as a means of evangelism, and many students converted to Christianity as a result of their education. The impact of Christianity on African culture and society is still evident in South Africa today.


In conclusion, mission schools in South Africa had a complex and often controversial history. While they were used as a tool of colonialism and oppression, they also played a significant role in promoting education, intellectualism, and social activism among the African population. The legacy of mission schools in South Africa is a complex and multifaceted one that continues to shape the country’s social, cultural, and educational landscape today.

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