Trapped in a Bankrupt System

Black South African Youths Who Arrive at School Find Good Intentions, But Little Else

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Justice Nkoane has spent the past year of his schooling sitting on a pile of bricks in a crudely converted horse stable. ``We spent a month knocking down walls to make rooms big enough for classrooms,'' he says.

``We called the school Sizenzele, which means `We made it ourselves.'''

The concept of education as a basic right is not something with which Justice is readily familiar.

In South Africa he is one of the lucky ones.

Nine million black pupils are enrolled in school. But 5 million others have been unable to attend because of severe overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and political turmoil in black education.

Over the past decade revolutionary black youths have formed the cutting edge of the uprising against white rule.

Widespread school boycotts have been directed at a system of rigidly segregated education designed by whites to keep blacks in perpetual inferiority.

In 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd, regarded as the architect of apartheid, said ``The natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.''

Then serving as minister of ``Bantu education,'' Mr. Verwoerd went on to become prime minister. He was assassinated in 1966.

His most abiding legacy is an education system that has produced a generation of revolutionaries bent on attaining liberation before education.

Since being released from jail last February, Nelson Mandela has spearheaded a back-to-school campaign that is gradually gaining momentum.

But black schools - many of which were burned and wrecked by angry pupils in the 1976 and 1985 rebellions - have descended into near-anarchy.

Crime and gang warfare are rife, teachers are assaulted, and radical black students - acting beyond the control of the African National Congress - often reign unchallenged.

Pretoria has committed itself to the principle of equality in education and has pledged to use part of a special $1.2 billion fund for socioeconomic advancement.

But, so far, the scale of the problem has overwhelmed authorities. Estimates of the amount needed to achieve racial parity in education range between $8 billion and $12 billion.

Anti-apartheid groups have rejected the official syllabus and devised a popular alternative known as ``peoples' education.''

The government has adopted a ``wait-and-see'' attitude, apparently in the belief that there will be no solution to segregated education until a new political dispensation has been reached.

When Justice Nkoane and his family arrived a year ago in this rapidly growing community of some 25,000 people - about 30 miles south of Johannesburg - there were no schools at all.

So the local residents' association acquired the abandoned stables and began converting them into a makeshift school.

In July, the Department of Education and Training - responsible for black education - responded to community pressure by paying the teachers an allowance of about $200 a month. It also pays subsidies to a makeshift primary school run by one of the residents and has built a secondary school that is due to open in January of next year.

The Nkoanes moved to Orange Farm from the overcrowded Diepkloof neighborhood in Soweto to build their own house. For Justice, the move created a new set of problems.

``The first few months of the year was spent fighting pupils from other townships - like Sebokeng - who demanded to be accommodated at our school,'' says Justice.

They were pupils barred by the authorities from reentering the education system after failing examinations or being labeled as ``agitators.''

At nearby Weiler's Farm - a squatter community condemned by the authorities - the residents have no chance of financial aid from government for education.

Yet some have chosen to remain behind and resist rather than move five miles to Orange Farm, where they fear that peoples' education replaced with the official syllabus.

The 1,000-strong Weiler's Farm community - reduced to about 1/10th of its original size - supports a thriving nursery and primary school despite its limited resources.

There have been efforts to achieve racial parity in education over the past decade. But the government still spends five times as much on each white child as on a black child.

Some 80 percent of black schools are without electricity. The average teacher-pupil ratio for black schools is about 1:45, compared to 1:18 for whites.

Dwindling white attendance has led to scores of school closings. There are currently more than 200,000 places vacant in white schools.

Although black pupils account for 80 percent of all pupil enrollment, only 113 out of every 10,000 black pupils pass the final school examination. Only one in 10,000 achieves a pass that qualifies him or her to enter a university.

Conditions at Sizenzele Secondary School, which has some 1,200 pupils, are grim even compared to Justice's old Soweto school.

``Things are worse here,'' he said. ``But I will manage. I want to study computer science when I finish school.''

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