JOHANNESBURG — Alexandra High School is no place to learn. Textbooks are in short supply, gangs rule the schoolyard, classrooms look like filthy bunkers, and teachers routinely skip school.
"Most students don't even have books, and there are about 50 of us packed into each class," says Zacharia Radebe, school president.
So Mr. Radebe was not surprised that only 21 percent of seniors in his black-township school passed last year's graduation exams. And even fewer obtained scores needed to get into a university.
Nationally, only 48.9 percent of South Africa's would-be graduates passed matriculation tests, which stand as the most important symbol of public education in this country. The results are a serious blow to the dream of a so-called "African renaissance."
"The African century we are talking about must produce doctors, engineers, scientists," President Thabo Mbeki told a crowd of supporters Saturday as he urged parents, teachers, and students to reverse the malaise in education.
Lebamang Sebidi, an analyst at the Johannesburg-based Trust for Educational Advancement, agrees. "South Africa cannot begin to build its young democracy and lead this continent to prosperity if it does not meet the central challenge of educating its young people," he says. "It is the key."
No one expected the legacy of apartheid education - blacks were deliberately undereducated so they would not aspire to whites' professional jobs - to be instantly wiped from school slates. But most everyone expected improvements.
While a handful of township schools are hailed for overcoming dismal conditions to achieve 100 percent pass rates, the overall performance on tests has declined in the five years since apartheid ended. In 1996, 54.4 percent of high school students passed the graduating exams. By last year, that figure dropped to 49.3 percent.
"These results spell a major economic and social crisis for our country," says Jonathan Jansen, a former township teacher and education analyst at the University of Durban-Westville.
But Mr. Jansen is not surprised by the results, given the problems that today's schools face. Violence at township schools is rife, with at least nine people being killed on school grounds last year - including a high school student who died when his principal opened fire on rowdy kids.
Investigations have revealed that much-needed education funding is wasted as thousands of corrupt school officials defraud the system by claiming salaries for "ghost" teachers who exist only on paper.
There are countless reports of teachers showing up for work drunk, without study plans, or not at all. Experts point out that many instructors in the township schools today are products of the apartheid education system: many have never experienced a functioning classroom and are more familiar with protest than teaching.
"There are people in the department who do not take the education of our children seriously,"the African National Congress party said in an uncharacteristic attack on its own government. "Such a situation is absolutely unacceptable."
Some of today's ANC politicians were among the black student activists who marched out of substandard "bantu" schools and led anti-apartheid uprisings.
The new democratic government vowed to make education a top priority in 1994, promising free schools, training for teachers, revamped curricula, and integration. Officials produced a "dazzling array of policies," but Jansen says "almost none of that has translated to material changes."
Resources have been concentrated in primary schools, but the government has done little to intervene in high schools. Most well-to-do whites have sent their children to private schools, and today there are many blacks enrolled in traditionally white schools, where parents pay fees to augment government grants. These so-called Model C schools are still rich in resources - quality teachers, computers, huge grounds, and proper class sizes.
"The provision of education in this country remains a class issue that most of us would like to ignore," says Salim Vally at the Education Policy Unit in Johannesburg. "The situation in black schools is such that we can not expect any improvement in the pupils' performance."
Students at formerly white schools achieved 80 to 100 percent pass rates, while pupils in impoverished townships flunked out in record numbers.
At Alexander High, Radebe passed his tests but watched most of his classmates receive the devastating news of failure.
"Black students died for the cause," he says, "But to this day, white children get a good education, and most of the black children do not. From there, it affects the rest of our lives.''
A passing grade on exams is a chance to enter the job market, or attend university. A failing grade is a ticket to unemployment lines, already swelling as more than 40 percent of the country's labor force languishes without work. "Just when we need them most, we are producing graduates who have absolutely no chance of participating in the economy," says Jansen.
President Mbeki warned Saturday that principals from badly performing schools faced firing if marks do not improve. Some provincial education officials joined in the tough talk, threatening to shut down at least five independent schools that did not see a single student pass the exams.
Kadar Asmal, the education minister, now says his goal is to get the overall pass rate up by 5 percent in 2000. He provided few concrete examples of how to achieve this aim, but stressed that dedication must be encouraged among all stakeholders - from department officials and teachers to parents and students.
While many critics have blamed the government for failing to make more material improvements in township schools, Jansen and Mr. Sebidi say the solution to this crisis is not something that money can buy: good old-fashioned discipline.
Research has shown that urban township schools devote less than half their time to active teaching. "You step into a black school, and it's total chaos for at least the first month," says Jansen. "Timetables aren't complete. Teachers aren't organized. Books haven't arrived."
During the rest of the year, adds Sebidi: "Kids carry guns and smoke dagga [marijuana] in the school yards. Teachers don't show up for work. Principals don't hold them accountable. The culture of learning simply does not exist in the majority of black schools."
But there are also excellent township schools that have proven strict management and scholarly discipline can overcome socio-economic adversities.
In the impoverished squatter settlement of Orange Farm in Johannesburg, one school received a 100 percent pass rate. The tough-minded principal, Moeketsi Molelekoa, was paraded at news conferences last week as an example of how to do things right, and yesterday he was hailed as a hero on the country's most popular radio talk show.
"Our students are staying in shacks, most go to bed without bread," Mr. Molelekoa said. But "we used the facilities we had to the maximum. Teachers prepared lessons in advance. They gave homework. And we stayed [with students] until 5 p.m. to make sure that it got done."
He said the difference is that his team of 24 teachers still see their jobs as a "noble profession" - not just a pay check.
Molelekoa agreed that education officials need to make routine inspections of schools to ensure teachers are performing. In some areas, study centers have been set up to help students prepare for the exams. Jansen says teachers should be sent for re-training, and Sebidi suggests principals be trained in management.
"We have to learn from these [successful] examples," says Sebidi, "otherwise we will always have to look outside the country to find pilots to fly our planes and engineers to build our bridges. The African renaissance will just be a fantasy if we don't rebuild our own human resources."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society