South African blacks: how can they get ahead when their schools are bad?

University education for South Africa's black population continues to be inferior to that offered to whites. However, changes are under way. The white minority government recently made a commitment to educate the country's millions of black youths. In the decade ahead, many will benefit, but the number of black university graduates - particularly in engineering and science disciplines - will not increase significantly until there are fundamental improvements in the math and science courses offered at the elementary and secondary levels.

Student riots in 1976 forced the government to initiate programs aimed at preparing blacks to compete for professional positions in the white-dominated South African economy. The riots, which began in the black township of Soweto near Johannesburg and spread throughout the country, provoked student boycotts and strikes and inflicted extensive property damage on black campuses in South Africa and in the so-called ''homelands'' to which Pretoria has assigned blacks.

Developments at the University of Zululand characterize both the positive changes and the problems facing black universities today. About 12 miles south of Richard's Bay in the heart of Zululand, the strikingly modern campus sits on a hilltop overlooking lush farmlands. The university's 2,000 students are drawn primarily from Zululand. They are serious students, determined to obtain a good university education and aware that employment opportunities for trained black graduates are virtually unlimited.

In 1976, this quiet campus was torn apart by student violence, culminating in a temporary closing of the university after the fiery destruction of its library and several other campus buildings. According to Dennis Hills, senior lecturer in accounting, who witnessed those turbulent times, the atmosphere today is quite different; students and faculty study and work in a relatively stable academic environment not unlike that found in United States universities.

''The destruction of the campus in 1976 had one positive outcome in the greatly improved facilities available to our students today. Furthermore, students' attitudes have changed, and we now have an environment in which serious learning is taking place,'' Mr. Hills says. He attributes much of the improvement in student attitudes to the leadership of Prof. A.C. Nkabinde, the university's rector, whose no-nonsense style and authoritarian approach to student disruptions has markedly reduced tension in recent years.

The physical facilities at Zululand are impressive. Rebuilt and enlarged, the university features dramatic modern architecture, is well-maintained, and is equipped with the latest audiovisual teaching aids. Additional construction is under way to further enlarge the new library, which boasts a computerized card catalog system that librarians everywhere would appreciate.

Despite its size and layout, the library contains only 100,000 volumes; and a casual examination of the business holdings reveals a lack of current technical materials. The acquisition of additional books is a priority.

Students continue to shun the rigorous mathematics, science, and business curricula, opting instead for liberal arts, public administration, and the ''soft sciences,'' which tend to limit their career opportunities in the more lucrative business, engineering, and technical positions now in demand in South Africa.

Also, high academic failure rates plague programs in the technical professions, perhaps reflecting inadequate preparation at the elementary and secondary levels. Dennis Hills notes that only about 15 percent of students majoring in accounting at Zululand eventually complete the three-year Bachelor of Commerce program. He voiced a widely held belief that many students lack fundamental math and science skills and the necessary intellectual discipline to complete demanding technical studies.

A similar picture emerges at the University of Transkei in Umtata, capital of the Transkei, a black homeland bordering on the Indian Ocean.

Clearly the showplace of Transkei, the recently constructed campus boasts a collection of modern brick and concrete buildings on the outskirts of an otherwise unimpressive city. The school's student body of around 2,000 is drawn from the Xhosa tribes of the area. Like the University of Zululand, the faculty is a mixture of black and white professors, principally from Transkei and South Africa, but also including some faculty from overseas.

Wolfgang Thomas, a white economics professor originally from Germany, outlined some of the university's problems. He noted that there is a continuing need for qualified faculty and that attracting and retaining them is an ongoing concern.

The city of Umtata has about 12,500 white residents and lacks the cultural attractions many academics seek. (Durban, the nearest cultural center, is about a six-hour drive by car.) Although classes are conducted in English, fluency in Xhosa is helpful, especially for faculty conducting research or seeking to establish ties with the local community.

Like the University of Zululand, Transkei experiences a high academic failure rate, and here, too, the students are reluctant to study math, science, and economics. They concentrate instead on the liberal arts programs.

The new black Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) sharply contrasts with the black undergraduate universities. It was established in 1978 and is housed in new facilities near the Bophuthatswana border about an hour's drive outside Pretoria.

MEDUNSA's spacious complex of ultramodern buildings includes fully equipped classroom and laboratory facilities, dormitories, and even a superbly appointed athletic complex. Adjacent to the university is a 2,000-bed hospital serving the local population. The hospital is to be modernized and enlarged into an up-to-date teaching hospital.

Although still incomplete, MEDUNSA represents an investment of more than $150 million in the preparation of black physicians, dentists, veterinarians, and support staff for the allied health professions.

MEDUNSA's highly selective admissions standards have produced a low academic failure rate and highly motivated students. According to a public relations officer, only 1 applicant in 10 is admitted to the school. The program's academic quality can be measured by test results of examinations administered throughout the program. MEDUNSA students appear to compare favorably with their white counterparts at older, established white medical schools in South Africa.

The first class of about 40 new black physicians was graduated last December. When operating at full capacity (the dental and veterinary schools are not yet under way), MEDUNSA will prepare 600 black graduates (including 200 physicians) per year for the medical profession and will significantly increase the number of black doctors in South Africa.

Despite the problems of low enrollments and high academic failure in black undergraduate programs, the picture is not entirely bleak. Black students may apply for admission to white universities if they can show that the courses they seek aren't available at segregated institutions. After overcoming formidable bureaucratic red tape, more than 1,200 black students managed to enroll in white institutions in 1982.

Besides the more than 10,000 students enrolled in the five major black universities, another 11,000 blacks are part-time students at the University of South Africa, a correspondence university with total enrollment of more than 40, 000. But, according to the Department of Education and Training, only 0.2 percent of black South Africans get some sort of higher education.

The South Africa Foundation's 1983 Information Digest reports that some 10, 700 blacks in South Africa hold university degrees, more than two-thirds having graduated during the past decade. Although disappointing in absolute numbers, the trend is clearly favorable.

The number of black engineering and science graduates remains minuscule, however. A recent study sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation reveals that in 1976 there were only 216 black graduates in architecture, medicine, dentistry, engineering, law, agriculture, and veterinary science, compared with 3,516 whites.

According to the Federation of Societies of Professional Engineers, in 1981 only 29 blacks and 129 Coloreds were employed as engineers in all of South Africa. Those numbers probably will not increase dramatically for years to come.

D.W. Steyn, minister of education and training, admits the shortage of qualified black engineeers and scientists is attributable to inadequate early preparation in science and math. He noted that the government has introduced in-service training programs to improve the skills of black elementary and secondary schoolteachers, many of whom lack even high school diplomas. Improvements are expected to come slowly.

About 80 percent of school-age blacks (age 7 to 17) are enrolled in school in South Africa. A further statistical breakdown: 18 percent of total black population is in primary school, and 3.7 percent is secondary schools, according to the Department of Education and Training.

Another promising development is an emerging private industry/government coalition to build and staff college-level technical schools (technikons). According to Mr. Steyn, the current level of government funding ($540 million in fiscal 1982-83) for black education is inadequate to overcome many years of neglect. Large corporations such as Barlow Rand, Ford, General Motors, and Firestone have begun to offer private funding to help meet pressing needs.

In Port Elizabeth, for example, Ford, General Motors, and Firestone have contributed more than $1 million to build a technikon to supply trained blacks for the auto industry. The sponsoring companies are justifiably proud of the school, which currently trains about 250 blacks, all of whom are assured good jobs after graduation. The government provides operating funds and views the school as a model for future development. Seven additional black technikons are planned throughout South Africa.

A similar project has been completed in Ciskei, where Barlow Rand Group provided funds to build Buchule, the first technical high school in that black homeland. Opened in 1979, the school accommodates about 400 students who are training to be electricians, motor mechanics, and carpenters.

On balance, although significant progress has been made in black education during the last few years, serious problems remain. High academic failure rates at the university level are an ongoing problem. Althogh demand for graduates in engineering and the sciences is intense and blacks are the obvious population group to supply those needs, a significant increase in the number of graduates is unlikely in the near future.

Many of the problems of black university education can be traced to fundamental inadequacies in elementary and secondary education. Unfortunately, there are no quick solutions, because increasing the number of well-prepared teachers and retraining deficient teachers will take time. Programs to improve the quality of education offered to blacks at all levels are in place or in the planning stages. Continued progress will require financial support and a stable political and economic environment.

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