American corporations operating in South Africa are under pressure to promote blacks as rapidly as possible into technical and managerial positions. Many are anxious to do so for the obvious economic reasons, as well as for social ones, in a country where growth will be impossible without going beyond the already exhausted pool of available white labor. But South Africa has long underfinanced and otherwise neglected the education of its 22 million Africans, and too few trained blacks are readily available. Only an accelerated educational program will make anything like widespread commercial affirmative action possible.
For a South Africa that says that it wants to reform and to alter the existing operating aspects of apartheid (segregation), the education of Africans is a key test. Last month, shortly after the government won a resounding victory in a constitutional referendum on reform, it announced its plans for sweeping educational changes. Unfortunately, those changes may be much less significant than they appear.
The government promised to provide equal opportunities for every child, irrespective of race. It stressed the need to upgrade levels of training for black teachers, vast numbers of whom now instruct without having finished high school themselves. Further, the government said that its reform of the educational system would focus on vocational and technical training. Parents are to be involved, and new centralized examinations are promised.
Unhappily, the government's policy statement largely rejected the advanced thinking and recommendations of its own commission, chaired by one of the country's leading Afrikaner educators. That commission had called for a single, nonracial department of education.
Nevertheless, the South African government has now rejected any approach which would treat the education of Africans, Coloureds (peoples of mixed descent), Asians, and whites as parts of a single problem. Instead, the government intends to maintain separate ministries of education for each, and also to permit rural schooling to be controlled by the local groups that run its 10 independent and dependent homelands. There are to be four education ministers reporting to a fifth superminister, plus the 10 homeland ministers of education.
The new educational scheme is intended to perpetuate apartheid in education. There is no provision for decreasing the existing 13:1 ratio between the state expenditure per pupil on whites and that on Africans. In absolute terms, South Africa now spends 726 million rand on the education of 4.6 million whites and only 561 million rand on 22 million Africans. Existing white standards of ''Christian national education'' are to be maintained. Most damaging to any rapid improvement in African education is the implication that the government will not add significant new resources; instead, blacks will be asked to pay themselves for better schools and teachers, a burden most black South Africans already find heavy. ''It will depend on the community concerned,'' the government says, ''to what extent education of an equal quality does develop.''
The American business community in South Africa supports a modern technical high school, and many of the individual corporations greatly assist the educational efforts of Africans in their segregated towns. But until the South African government decides to upgrade education for Africans and to commit major infusions of funds, the American effort must remain isolated and insufficient. It is difficult to understand how South Africa can expect to modernize apartheid and reform itself in a serious and lasting manner without educating the vast majority of its total labor force and population.