Annesburg, South Africa — ``Today, I will give you a test,'' the math teacher announced to her Soweto high school seniors. The pupils shouted, ``No,'' but she stood her ground. ``Oh, yes!'' she assured them.
One of the students rose, strode to the blackboard. Brandishing a knife, he drew nearly nose to nose with the teacher, and declared: ``There will be no test.''
There was no test.
Many of South Africa's nearly 20,000 segregated black public schools still seem to be functioning, notably primary schools and rural ``farm schools.'' But many of the urban black schools have become completely inoperative.
Meanwhile, at least some South Africans, including some in the government, are groping for a way to head off what black-education specialist Franz Auerbach of Soweto's privately funded Funda Education Center terms ``a future agony of thousands of untrained people ill prepared for any future.''
The landscape in most black city high schools -- seeding ground for the militants who have come to dominate black South African politics -- remains one of despair, semi-literacy, physical dilapidation, and violence. This is especially true in the eastern Cape province, and in Soweto, the largest of the black-commuter ``townships,'' on the edge of the country's main cities. The government, which administers the 7,000 black public schools outside the tribal ``homelands,'' has indicated that roughly two-thirds of its high schools were disrupted by political unrest in the 1985 academic year.
This crisis has accumulated over decades. It owes much, directly or indirectly, to the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation.
``Native [black] education should be controlled in such a way that it should be in accord with the policy of the state,'' declared Hendrik Verwoerd, the grand ideologist of apartheid, when he inaugurated his Bantu (black) Education system in 1953. ``If the native in South Africa today in any kind of school in existence is being taught to expect that he will live his adult life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake.''
Also contributing to the present crisis is a history of black poverty and illiteracy that predated apartheid, and an explosion of black population and economic and political aspirations that will outlive it. The number of blacks in government high schools has risen from roughly 35,000 in the mid-1950s, to something on the order of 750,000.
The aborted attempt to administer a math exam occurred not in one of the black city's public schools, but at a showcase private school founded and funded with the help of United States businesses here.
In Soweto's government-run high schools, the picture is made bleaker by the frequent shortage of qualified teachers, textbooks, and classroom equipment. According to a private study conducted in 1985 -- as the government was pumping millions of dollars into black education to reverse years of neglect -- only 2.4 percent of the teachers in black public schools had university diplomas.
Even before a recently renewed boycott brought most Soweto classes to a standstill, few students bothered doing homework. Teachers sometimes came to class drunk. They sometimes beat and sexually harrassed students. At year's end, the school dutifully ``promoted'' the unrealistically high number of students deemed to have passed internally administered exams, only to watch them crash to failure when it came time to take the government matriculation exam.
In one such school, recalls a teacher who recently left public education, only 10 of 24 classrooms had electricity. There were almost no blackboard erasers.
The overall result, he argues, was ``a vicious cycle of negativity.'' In 1985, he set out to unravel that cycle. He surveyed dozens of students and fellow teachers at the public school where he taught, monitored classroom attendance and performance by both, collated the results, and produced a 70-page study. Although not yet published, it has been circulating among South African educators in recent weeks. The survey found students indignant over teachers' abuse and occasional drunkenness. It found teachers discouraged by low pay, student apathy, and poor facilities.
Of the 149 students who took the government's matriculation exam at the school in late 1983, well before political unrest escalated in fall 1984, only 2 percent scored high enough for a chance at attending a university. Twenty percent earned ``school leavers''' certificates. The rest failed. In 1984, according to the report, 1 percent gained marks high enough to enter a university.
By mid-1985, with political unrest raging in Soweto and other black communities nationwide, the schools' students began boycotting classes. The matriculation exam was postponed. Desperate, the principal invited parents and students to an evening discussion of ways to end the boycott. Outside the hall, his car was stoned, ``the windows smashed, and the tires slashed.'' Later, he received a telephone death threat. The boycott went on.
The situation was similar, say teachers, in other Soweto high schools. One white teacher says that for the past two years ``open-book exams'' have been undermining any semblance of academic rigor. ``The students demanded it. I managed to resist. But the black teachers [by far the majority] couldn't. . . . They knew they'd be risking their lives.''
The roots of many of the problems lie in Bantu Education, designed to ``educate'' blacks for their proper role in the world of apartheid. Government syllabi, complain students in Soweto, are drawn from a world irrelevent to them. Exam questions often focus on white history and literature, or situations unfamiliar to them.
One white teacher of the Afrikaans language says the students' groping for a place in South Africa's racially divided world comes across in class. ``When I ask the children to write a composition on `their city,' they don't write about Soweto. They write about Johannesburg.''
Yet at the same time, an increasing number of students, especially in urban areas, is militating for an end to white domination. ``When I leave school,'' remarks one of the 270 Soweto students given questionnaires and then interviewed for the unpublished school survey, ``I am prepared to do any work except hard labor.'' Black student leaders are militating for a move toward ``people's education,'' and for a wholesale revamping of the nation's political system.
Black parents, South African teachers, private employers or businessmen, and the South African government are variously trying to upgrade black public schooling, and to end the boycotts. But the backlog of inequality is combining with South African politics -- black and white -- to make this a very tall order.
Second of three articles. Next: The politics of black education.
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.