THE decision by the government and the African National Congress to seek joint solutions to the education crisis represents an important step toward creating a single education system. At a four-hour meeting at President Frederik de Klerk's Cape Town office, Tuynhuys, government officials and anti-apartheid education experts agreed to form a joint committee.
The nine-person committee - to be known as the Joint Working Group on education - will make it a priority to establish a single education system and a single budget, and to recognize representative anti-apartheid structures.
ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who led a delegation of education experts, described the decision as a ``breakthrough.''
The landmark meeting will begin a process to restore a culture of learning in the black townships, where schools are in near-chaos, and to address huge racial disparities in state spending on education. The government, which has acknowledged the mistakes of the past, commands massive financial resources which could fund a national effort to provide equal education for all.
``It is important that the government and the educationists agreed to set up a joint structure,'' says Franz Auerbach, a veteran educationist and advocate of a nonracial system. ``But it is disturbing that there was no mention of the rural areas where the backlog is at its worst and two-thirds of the 7-million black pupils are located.''
Dr. Auerbach said that Mr. Mandela's participation underscored the widespread belief that a solution to the education crisis could not await the outcome of negotiations for a new constitution.
Minister of Education and Development Aid Christoffel Van Der Merwe, the official responsible for black education, said after the meeting that it would be unwise to rush into the creation of a single education department. This could give rise to the creation of a ``monster'' which would be impossible to administer. ``Let us keep our options open and do things together,'' he said. ``There may be one or more departments, but there will have to be one system.''
Mr. Van der Merwe also warned that the government could not ``concede immediately ... to demands for the immediate equalization of spending on education.'' At present there are 19 separate departments of education defined by racial and ethnic criteria under what has become known as ``apartheid education.''
The ANC participation in the meeting bestows legitimacy on the search for a new education order. ``There is a seriousness of purpose on our side,'' says John Samuel, ANC Education Department head. ``There is a commitment to put political slogans behind us.''
Mr. De Klerk, who led the government team, told Parliament earlier this month, ``We are determined that our ultimate system of education shall enjoy the acceptance and support of the majority of our population.''
``One positive aspect is that there is general agreement about what has to be done,'' Mr. Samuel said recently.
``But there are fears that there will be further attempts by the government to entrench the status quo.''
Since the Soweto uprising of 1976 black education has symbolized the repression of the apartheid era for a generation of black youth.
Fifteen years of school boycotts - motivated by the cry: liberation now, education later - have denied even a basic education to some 3 to 4 million black youths.
When Mandela was released from jail in February last year one of his first public acts was to call on black children to return to school. He denies that the ``liberation before education'' approach was ever propagated by the ANC. But he recently conceded that his initial call for youth to return to school had been naive.
``I realized that I had taken a superficial view of the matter,'' Mandela said on his first anniversary of freedom earlier this month. ``I was right by saying they should go back to school, but I had not investigated whether there were opportunities for them once they got back to school.''
This year there are about 7 million black pupils - compared to about 1 million whites and 1 million Indians and pupils of mixed-race - in schools throughout South Africa.
An estimated 5 million blacks won't gain entry because of a gross shortage of schools, teachers and facilities. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of black candidates who sit for their final examinations will pass, but they represent less than 10 percent of school entrants.
``Bantu education'' - a system of inferior education deliberately designed to prevent black advancement - was devised in the 1950s by the late Hendrik Verwoerd.