South African Schools Struggle to Make Grade

Nelson Mandela came to power targeting education as crucial to black progress. Eighteen months later, many black students await everything from desks to textbooks

ADMINISTRATORS at the B.W. Vilakazi High School in Soweto say things have never been better in the new South Africa: For the first time in decades, the school in this poor black area has an intact roof, books, and chairs. Plumbing has been repaired. Students no longer have to cross the street to use toilets in the homes of strangers.

But the improved facility is a dubious showcase for success in narrowing the cavernous gap in the quality of education for blacks and whites.

The school has not replaced history textbooks that ignore the heritage of the 5-to-1 black majority and preach the white domination of 300 years that fractured this country. Classrooms are often emptied as students work to raise funds the state cannot provide. Principal Mafika Khoza says a major priority is to buy burglar bars so that vandals cannot sneak through the windows to steal desks and lightbulbs.

"For the first time in my life, I feel a responsibility to go to school - for myself and for my country. I believe education is my liberation," says Precious Khumalo, who is now bent on finishing her education after having stayed away from classes for years. But she complains about going to a computer class where there are only manuals and no computers. "There are a lot of things lacking here, which don't make learning easy."

President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress swept the country's first black-majority government into power 18 months ago, promising to bury the racial discrimination that has left 30 percent of the population illiterate. He called upon an entire generation of youths like Ms. Khumalo to return to the schools that they tried to destroy under apartheid as bastions of repression, and help establish a new culture of learning and achievement.

Mr. Mandela's government pledged to redistribute resources among the 12 million students nationwide to better represent the black majority and to divert money from well-equipped white schools to dilapidated ones like B.W. Vilakazi.

Also on the docket is a new national ministry of education, which will replace 19 different departments formerly divided by race. The curriculum is to be rewritten, 12,000 new classrooms built, white schools integrated, and 10 years of free and compulsory education provided for all.

Some progress is being made toward these goals. Primary schools offer nearly 5 million children free lunches. Many white schools have opened their doors to black pupils, with surprisingly few incidents even in the reactionary Afrikaner strongholds. And attitudes have changed. Millions of students who forfeited their education by making schools ungovernable are now painting over the graffiti of protest and heeding calls to go back to school by student leaders canvassing door-to-door.

But overall, the report card of achievements so far is extremely limited.

Results released last week show that only 55.2 percent of the roughly half-million high school graduation candidates passed their final exams this year - one of the worst results in recent history. This occurred despite the best pupil attendance in recent years and changes in spending to favor black schools.

Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu said he would ask the cabinet to increase the education budget, among other measures. But he warned that the public expected too much too soon from education reforms.

The overwhelming task of redesigning an entire educational system from scratch has undermined meaningful reform. Bureaucratic chaos, for example, led to an estimated 1.8 million children of school age not being enrolled last year. And lack of financial resources has meant that little progress is being made in changing what is arguably one of the most vital sectors for uplifting a downtrodden population.

For instance, a total 29 billion rand ($8 billion) was allocated to education in 1994-95. This represented 23 percent of the national budget, a rise of 11.5 percent from the previous year. But then 221 million rand was reallocated to other projects deemed more necessary to develop the country. While the percentage of diverted funds was quite small, it could have underwritten several new schools.

And despite efforts to redistribute educational funds, white students still receive far more state money. Although the gap has narrowed somewhat, the state still spends about 4,000 rand ($1,124) on the average white student versus 1,500 ($450) rand on blacks. (This compares with an average $5,000 spent on each pupil in the United States.)

Many black schools are also struggling to reduce student-teacher ratios, which can run as high as 60 to 1, compared with about half that on a national basis. They are working to improve the pass rate in graduation exams for black students, which is less than 50 percent, lagging well behind the estimated 97 percent for whites.

Bricks and mortar

Basics like books and chairs for black schools are also a pressing concern for education officials. While they would also like better facilities, they cannot even begin to think about building the green soccer fields and well-equipped chemistry labs of schools found in white suburban areas.

"The rehabilitation is an enormous challenge," says Mary Metcalfe, head of education in the populous Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg. "The classrooms just aren't there. The budget is a source of great anxiety."

In Gauteng alone, some 20 to 40 schools are due to be built over the next three years, most of them in the populous townships where most blacks live. In the meantime, however, educators complain the existing ones are operating at four times their capacity - partly because of a swell of students in their mid-20s who are returning to the classrooms.

Other education officials say members of the national government are too concerned with fiscal restraint to allocate adequate resources. They especially criticized Education Minister Bengu, who has displayed little dynamism in getting things done.

"He just doesn't understand the necessities," says one senior official, who asked not to be named. "Plus, we don't believe that the people involved in decision-making regarding national finances are convinced that education is contributing enough to development."

It is not just the administrators who are demoralized. Most of the country's 75,000 teachers earn on average a meager 24,000 to 40,000 rand ($6,700 to $11,000) a year. Many, like the students, have grown tired of working under difficult circumstances with a dire lack of teaching materials.

"How can you instill a desire to learn in such circumstances?" asked one teacher in a Johannesburg township school, standing under a ceiling with holes and cracked windows where the rain was leaking in. The smell of blocked toilets filled the classroom.

Lack of punctuality and absenteeism among teachers is common, principals complain. Last year, for instance, about one-quarter of scheduled school hours were forfeited in black areas between students or teachers who did not arrive on time or left early.

Bureaucratic turmoil

Just as physical dilapidation takes a toll on teachers and students, so does the chaos of consolidating 19 bureaucracies - from disbanded black homelands, seven former provinces, and separate white, black, and mixed-race departments - into one.

Educators from the nine new provinces complain that they are so busy with the administrative burden that they can not concentrate on teaching.

"Suddenly you have a new provincial minister and he doesn't even know how many teachers he has or how to pay them," says Schalk Engelbrecht, executive director of the education research project at Pretoria's Human Sciences Research Council. He points to frequent clashes between old-school administrators, who are generally white, and the new, mainly black bosses.

"They lack the proper staff and data. Then there's a mix of people from new and six or seven old departments, all with different cultural backgrounds, Dr. Engelbrecht comments. "Some are keen on the changes, others aren't. You have to create a team spirit which isn't there."

Confusion is so great that even the education ministry does not have national school statistics and is seeking the aid of Engelbrecht's team to draw them up.

His team plans to visit every one of the country's 29,000 schools, literally pinpoint it on a map, and evaluate its facilities. He hopes by the end of the year to have a sort of central database survey of the entire network - but until then ministry officials will have to act in the dark.

But even as educators decry the lack of decent facilities, they are struggling with a far more complex problem: the development of a post-apartheid curriculum. Numerous committees have been set up to investigate all subjects, but no complete syllabus revision is expected before 1997.

Books have yet to be written in the country's nine official African languages. Afrikaans and English, spoken by whites, continue to be the dominant tongues of teaching despite the fact that they are second languages for most South Africans.

Textbooks are also in desperate need of updating. They make virtually no mention, for example, of Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years for his fight for black rights. The three-year transition period of intense negotiations between former white rulers and the blacks they jailed is inadequately addressed, despite being hailed by the international community as a miracle and example for the world.

By contrast, "History in Action," a book widely used in black township schools, devotes considerable space to conflicts between white communities. An entire chapter, for example, deals with "The Poor White Problem." There is no mention of the poor black problem.

Rewriting history

"We blacks just come in as a footnote," complains Charles Modisane, a history teacher in a Soweto school. "It is boring and frustrating to have to teach this stuff. It's time they changed."

Frustrated with the lack of proper textbooks and a modern curriculum, Mr. Modisane has resorted to newspapers and anecdotes to teach his students about their own heritage.

But such teacher initiative is rare, officials say. Too often, teachers dogmatically stick to outdated syllabi, regardless of their veracity.

Ms. Metcalfe recounted the case of one teacher who insisted on teaching about the homelands, ignoring the fact that they were abolished 18 months ago, just because they were in the textbooks. "The lack of a new curriculum is devastating," she says.

Switching allegiances

The one area where there have been tangible signs of change is in attitudes, but even there much work remains to be done.

In an ironic reversal, the Congress of South African Students, which spearheaded the student revolt that made black classrooms virtually ungovernable, may now have actually bestowed more legitimacy on schools by encouraging students to pursue an education. But there is still a need to motivate parents and students long intimidated by the sight of a school building. And for impoverished youths long denied hopes of a viable future, gangsters in flashy vehicles are often more romantic role models than teachers driving beat-up cars.

As for desegregation, the process has been surprisingly devoid of violent incidents, in sharp contrast to what the United States experienced as it moved to integrate schools in the 1950s.

In white communities, desegregation has been most successful in urban areas, particularly in "Model C" semiprivate schools, where some 10 percent of the student population is now black. Some of the black children commute long hours from the townships, while others live in cramped quarters behind suburban houses with their mothers who work as maids for white families.

At one Model-C school, the Parktown High School for Girls, in one of Johannesburg's more affluent suburbs, a recent "open day" presented a harmonious scene. Black rap music blared over the loudspeakers, Indian snacks were sold at the food stands, and the girls milling about on the school's green lawn were a mix of every racial group.

"Race problems? Does it look that way?" a white teacher asked incredulously. "In short, no. They get on fine."

The government, which now subsidizes Model-C schools, plans eventually to ease out such support to forge a fully egalitarian system. But educators point out that this may put poor black students at a disadvantage by encouraging an exodus of whites to private institutions as the Model-C schools drop certain standards and become more like existing public schools.

Desegregation has been an extremely sensitive issue in the conservative rural Afrikaner heartland, where communities have been adamant about the need to maintain cultural differences.

Hermina Fogey, a researcher at the Johannesburg-based South African Institute for Race Relations, says the only "hiccups" in desegregation have occurred in such communities, where white parents have withdrawn their children from newly integrated schools or tried to keep black pupils out by requiring language or written entrance exams.

Another concern, she says, is that segregation along economic lines will likely continue. Virtually no white, middle-class parents will want their children to attend a poor township school, she says, when they could go to a properly equipped facility close to home.

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