Not A Crime’s education equality campaign raises awareness of the educational apartheid against the Baha’is of Iran, the country’s largest religious minority. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has blocked Baha’i’s from pursuing higher education. As part of the initiative, Not A Crime tries to study the cost of discrimination in other countries where different groups of people have faced discrimination. South Africa, which was ruled by the apartheid regime from 1948 to 1994, was the natural first choice for our study. As part of the project we have conducted a series of interviews with South Africans who lived and studied during the apartheid era. The interviews offer moving and personal accounts of the cost of educational discrimination. We hope these testimonies can draw the attention of the Iranian government, and other governments with discriminatory policies, to the harm done by an unjust educational system. Discrimination not only hurts the victims and survivors of the discrimination, but also the discriminators.
Peter Mputle grew up during apartheid. He wanted to be an accountant – but he knew this wouldn’t be possible for him. The 1953 Bantu Education Act was one of apartheid's most racist laws. It brought African education under control of the government and extended apartheid to schools. The educational system for black South Africans was designed by Hendrik Verveord, one of apartheid’s chief architects. It aimed to produce black workers whose sole purpose was serve white people and prop up the regime. Verveord infamously believed that the Africans who come out of Bantu Education were meant to do the most menial work for white South Africans, such as collecting water for them and chopping their wood.
“What does that mean?” asks Peter Mputle. “Those people are prepared for those lower levels, they mustn’t think or advance. They mustn’t think of any technology. We were meant to be in the bush. That was all. So the type of education that was given was to make people lesser than animals.”
Mputle believes the maladies suffered by South Africa today have their roots in this education inequality. Twenty-six percent of South Africans are unemployed. The rate is more than 50 percent among young people under the age of 24. The country is in the top 10 counties in the world for income inequality. It is also one of the top ten countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Sixty-four percent of the criminals have only studied to high school level education or less. A recent study found: “If you live in South Africa and did not complete high school then your chances of committing crime, being caught, and sent to jail are pretty high.” The same study points out: “South Africa is still plagued with the after-effects of its apartheid history, which enforced sub-standard education for different racial groups, creating a polarized society.”
Peter Mputle says that Bantu Education hurt all South Africans, and not only black people. “As a country at this stage there is a lack of skills” Mputle says. “You have so many black people, most of them, and particularly young people, who are not employed. They seek opportunities, they don't get anywhere. The biggest problem is a lack of skills. White people, yes, they are skilled in their own way. But at the same time, while white people wanted to create people who will work for them; white people now want to keep jobs for themselves. There are some basic things they cannot do.”
The Baha’is in Iran – its largest religious minority, with 300,000 people – are subjected to discrimination on religious grounds rather than race. They are not part of a project to serve one section of society – they are simply excluded from society. Iranian governments for generations have tried to further this aim. The policy is rooted in a 1991 memorandum, signed by Iran’s then and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which said that the progress of the Baha’is should be “blocked” by denying them work opportunities and higher education.
In Iran and apartheid South Africa, education has been used as a tool to impose hierarchy, discrimination and division. Creating divisions between different sections, religions, or races has a hugely damaging impact on a country. “When you deny on political grounds some of your population to develop their human resources, not only they suffer, the society as a whole suffers,” says Iraj Abedian, an Iranian, South African-based economics professor. “The most damaging legacy of apartheid is reflected by the majority of South African youth who are undereducated.”
Peter agrees with Abedian’s argument. “You may come up with laws that you think will benefit you, but at the same time that law is hurting you,” says Mputle. “It will come back and debar you from developing. In life there is this concept of reciprocity. You give, you receive. You come up with a law, denying other people some opportunities but it will come back it will hurt you as well. … The white people suffered as much as we suffered, there are things that they missed as much as there are opportunities that we also missed. So it is better to allow people to come together to work together as one.”
In Iran, the Baha’is have taken action to redress their own version of education apartheid. In response to the ban on higher education, Baha'is created the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an underground university, in 1987. Thousands of Baha'is currently study through the BIHE system, and academic institutions around the world recognize its qualifications. According to the official BIHE website, the system offers Iranian Baha’is a choice of more than 1,050 courses ranging from Persian Literature to Applied Chemistry, and accepts an average of about 450 students every year. Much like other students in Iran, BIHE applicants must meet rigorous academic requirements and pass a national entrance exam to be accepted. But given that Baha’i students and teachers are forbidden from attending or teaching at regular universities in Iran, classes must be held in secret at peoples’ homes. The threat of arrest is a part of daily life.
Public opinion is shifting today in Iran and people are increasingly at odds with the repressive policies of their government. Earlier this month, Faezeh Hasehemi, the daughter of one of the architects of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, visited a prominent jailed Baha’i leader while she was out of prison on temporary leave. “It was my duty,” Faezeh Hashemi said – suggesting a huge change in Iranian society and the chance that greater openness and equality are coming to Iran. “The idea of one not being able to advance and develop, whilst being expected to live in a society that is advancing, it is really hurtful,” says Peter.
South Africans are still dealing with the legacies of apartheid. But overcoming that past and working for equal education is now a national mandate. Their stories can serve as an inspiration for the Baha’is in Iran – and more particularly as a warning to the Iranian government of the consequences of denying basic rights to 300,000 Iranian citizens.
Linking South African discrimination to Iranian discrimination is a powerful way of promoting education equality, Abedian says. “The explicit denial of education to the Baha’i’s is exactly the same: institutionalized, state-driven and politically motived. The discrimination is based not on racial grounds but religious grounds; the essence is identical.”