Johannesburg, South Africa — Early summer rains have brought color to the littered fields that surround this red brick school. Inside, small children in white and gray uniforms face oral exams as their first year in school draws to a close.
''What is this?'' asks the teacher, pointing to her mouth. Josiah, one of 40 Zulu-speaking children in this Soweto primary school, jumps out of his seat with the answer: ''Mouse,'' he says with pride.
The pronunciation is flawed, but Josiah's English will no doubt improve as he makes his way through at least 10 more years of public school. Josiah and his classmates represent the first wave of black children in South Africa that must, by law, attend school.
Siyavuma primary school (siyavuma, in Zulu, means ''we agree to learn'') has opted to accept the government's new policy of compulsory education, initiated this school year. Blacks formerly were not required to attend school. But in districts where schools unanimously adopt the new requirement, education is now compulsory by law.
The policy is being phased in so that this year only first-year pupils, like Josiah, are affected. Next year it will expand to the next grade level, and so on until it applies to children up to the age of 16.
Compulsory education is one of a number of changes being made by South Africa's white-run government in the field of black public education. Like most of those changes, it is eyed with suspicion and mistrust by blacks, who see it as a mere adjustment within an unjust structure.
''Since 1976 there have been lots of improvements in schools,'' concedes one Soweto mother, referring to the year when this black township outside Johannesburg exploded in riots. But the basic feeling that black education was inferior and designed by the government to keep blacks in a subservient role has not changed, she says.
Soweto, with an estimated population of 1.2 million, is classifed as a white area, because it is outside the ''homelands'' South Africa has designated for blacks. As such, its education system is controlled by the white South African government through a separate education department for blacks, the Department of Education and Training.
Years of underfunding and neglect, borne partly of the notion that black townships like Soweto were temporary features of the ''white'' urban environment , have taken their toll.
Josiah sits in a crowded classroom that, like most in Soweto, has no electricity. He is apt, during many of his public school years, to be taught by poorly qualified teachers.
It is estimated some 80 percent of black teachers do not have the qualifications they would need to teach in white schools. High-school-age students in Soweto often find themselves taught by teachers without the equivalent of a high school diploma.
The government insists it is now on a serious program of upgrading black education. Many of the changes are very recent.
Teacher qualification standards, for example, are being raised for blacks. Teacher training colleges used to admit applicants without the equivalent of high school diplomas. That practice ends this year.
Pay scales, too, are being raised for black teachers. This year parity with whites has been implemented at some administrative levels - from the top down to the heads of departments for the various subjects of study. Still, the typical black teacher earns about 80 percent of what a white teacher with the same qualifications earns, according to the government. The Department of Education and Training says parity for all teachers is being phased in, and there is ''hope'' it will be attained in 1982.
One of the most visible signs of change in Soweto is the level of school construction. A government education inspector says 450 new classrooms were added over the past two years in the black township.
There is new emphasis on vocational education. At the Molapo Technical Center in Soweto, where skills like bricklaying and welding are taught to both secondary school pupils and teachers, some 400 teachers recently showed up to test for 105 vacancies in a new program. Those selected will be trained to teach technical subjects and then will fan out to teach at 10 secondary schools.
Also, language requirements are being changed. Black pupils have been taught in their mother tongue through their first six years of school, while studying English and Afrikaans as subjects. The mother-tongue requirement will remain for the first four grades beginning next year. From the fifth year on, schools can select their own language for education.
Much of the change is borne of necessity. The South African economy will grow desperate for skilled black labor over the next 20 years - a position blacks will be unable to fill without drastic improvement in black education, most analysts agree.
Education has long been a political issue among South Africa's blacks. Inferior education proved a rallying point for blacks in Soweto in 1976, particularly when the government tried to force blacks to use Afrikaans as a medium of study. Afrikaans is the language of white Dutch descendants now in power in South Africa, and to many blacks a symbol of oppression.
One of the black demands in those turbulent years was ''free and compulsory education.'' Yet its introduction has met with limited acceptance. Despite the incentive that the government will provide free stationery to schools that accept compulsory education, only 13 out of 173 primary schools in Soweto have accepted the new policy.
''As parents we all want our children to be compelled to go to school,'' says T. W. Kambule, a former principal in Soweto who is now a university professor. ''But we wonder what we are being compelled to do.''
Mr. Kambule was a strong advocate of compulsory education in the mid-1970s, but says the government has taken the demand out of context. Forced schooling, he says, must come only with an educational system that is not separate and inferior to that provided for whites.
''We want free and compulsory education on the same terms it applies to whites,'' says Ezekiel Mphalele, founder of the Council for Black Education and research and member of the African studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand. As it is now, he says, compulsory education is being viewed by many blacks as simply a way to ''coerce people into staying in school.''
Some blacks see the policy as a government attempt to control school strikes and boycotts. Nonsense, says the government, pointing out it has other ''regulations and means to deal with boycotts.''
The core of most black criticism of the existing educational system is that as long as it remains separate and racially segregated, it will be unequal. A recent high-level government-established commission made vague recommendations toward a more open educational system in South Africa. But the government responded by reaffirming its policy that ''each population group should have its own schools.''