The Myth About Black Intelligence

Intelligence cannot be tested by one catch all test, it is not gendered, not racially determined and it is not static. You are both born with it and have it boosted by your environment. What we do know with certainty is that above average intelligence and giftedness reflect as a statistical reality of every single population group. Every society has an indiscriminate slice of random brilliance. Why then does South African society shy away from black intelligence as a fact of life?

In southern Africa, the first formal education available was church mission schools. They were not widely subscribed to by our indigenous populations until the 1913 Natives Land Act forced young people to sell their labor to survive. Speaking English, a formal qualification, or even a letter from a mission school helped secure a job. As class numbers swelled, the British colonial administration took notice and began limiting both the level of education that black people obtained and the areas of learning that were made available to them. Both eugenics and theories of ‘arrested development’ would later influence the system.

Fast forward to 1953, where Dr Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid, would introduce the Bantu Education Act by saying “there is no space for him [the Native] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed.”

The controversial act focused on reducing access to quality education for the black population: the state would spend ten times as much on the education of the white child in comparison with the black child. It would not spend on hiring nor training more black teachers, nor would it require teachers be qualified. It also forced all private mission schools to comply or face withdrawal of funding. With the wholesale exception of the Catholic Church, most took the money and implemented the policies. Then universities were racially segregated.

Thus the state set black people up for failure and hamstrung black advancement, while using the under-education of black people as evidence for why they required subjugation and guidance instead of the vote.

So how well did it work?

Last year South African President Jacob Zuma, himself a black man, would criticize black intellectuals by saying black people who “become too clever… become the most eloquent in criticizing themselves about their own traditions and everything.” There was the strong suggestion that intellectualism and black culture were naturally antagonistic to one another. This August, a spokesperson for the governing ANC party, Jackson Mthembu, would tell City Press that “the intelligentsia should not be anti-ANC and government.” Intelligence is fine, as long as it exists on terms the government is happy with.


Having worked in high school debating, some black coaches of black children opposed team integration on the grounds that the poorer children wouldn’t be capable. Some white coaches held a similar view on the basis that the poorer (and incidentally all black) learners would hold the others back. This was before any of the high school learners had even received training and coaching so that we could properly compare their abilities. I raise this example not purely because it was a profound personal experience but because it happened within debating — something very much considered a thinking sport. Educators were essentially prepared to make predictive, quantifying decisions on the mental capacity of children along race-class lines.

Should the average middle-class child — of any race — present as gifted in some way, there would be a trip to the occupational therapist and supplementary activities to grow their talent. However, these children are only a small sample of our wealth of talent, even though the rest may barely speak English or be years too old for their grade. That idea seems so foreign and radical that we just don’t believe it is possible, and our education systems reflect that.

The status quo view of achievement in South Africa is that government and NGOs focus on fixing what does not work and on improving things for the child least likely to succeed. In recognition of outstanding achievement, the government is purely reactive. It waits for learners to excel and then awards annual accolades to schools, teachers and learners who perform well nationally. It is only brave enough to reward those few who emerge unscathed from the system 12 years later. This is, incidentally, an education system ranked 140 out of 144 countries assessed by the World Economic Forum.


In the rest of the world, many state school systems assume that there will be a random allotment of above average and gifted children in every grade. They create systems to recognize these children and to provide them with additional support and stimulation in much the same way as we assume some children will need remedial assistance or will have disabilities.

By assuming that their population contains such potential, their system is more likely to retain high potential learners and more likely to generate outstanding academic results. The trajectory of these children indicates that South Africa is missing out on setting up for success an entire band of future leaders, entrepreneurs, academics and public servants that move into the middle class and pull others out of poverty along with them.

The first step, however, is the assumption that these children are out there. It is here that our government, NGOs and society at large seem hesitant to go searching for potential in our general populace. I believe this stems from a fear that black children would be massively underrepresented in any such system, despite all scientific and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. It was Steve Biko who said that “the greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” If we continue to value our children the same way apartheid did, we’re choosing to set them up for failure.