THANKS to apartheid, South Africa's black majority has long lacked educated professionals. Now a bold, new, controversial government-sponsored initiative promises to begin to remedy that cruel result of decades of white domination.
Given the almost certain likelihood of shared power this year, the dearth of black scientists, engineers, chartered accountants, high-level managers, physicians, and lawyers disturbs even those who are confident that the African National Congress (ANC) and other blacks can guide the complicated machinery of national and regional government.
There may now be 1,000 lawyers and 1,000 physicians in an African population of 28 million. But the number of qualified accountants, surgeons, medical specialists, pilots, assay chemists, water-quality engineers, and so on can be counted on the fingers of a few hands.
In the 1950s the white rulers of South Africa systematically prevented blacks from gaining high-quality secondary or higher education by barring them from church-run high schools and leading universities. They created inferior educational tracks for blacks and other people of color and spent one-tenth as much per head on blacks as on whites.
In recent years, that spending disparity has been reduced to a 4 to 1 ratio, but diminished numbers of white children still enjoy the kinds of learning advantages to which Africans must continue to aspire.
This year, as in the past few years, as few as 42 percent of Africans who took the school-leaving matriculation examination at the end of high school (roughly equivalent to an American 11th-grade comprehensive assessment, if there were one) passed. Moreover, only 10 percent of Africans who took the test scored high enough to be considered for university admission.
Ninety-eight percent of whites passed the matriculation hurdle, and 42 percent scored above the university admission level. Only 17 of the 314,367 Africans who took the test achieved a distinction. Among whites, about 2,400 of the 66,141 test-takers obtained a distinction.
President Frederick de Klerk's government now proposes an Educational Renewal Strategy. It would dismantle the 14 ethnic-based education departments that now determine schooling priorities nationally (for people of different colors) and in the homelands.
The government would create a single race-blind department to supervise all education in South Africa. The strategy would require all students (only whites are now required to go to school) to complete nine years of school. It would establish equal spending per head across the racial categories, overturning 300 years of practice and law.
New curricula would exist at all levels. The Christian National Educational system of the Afrikaner-dominated governments since 1948 would be scrapped.
UT the new strategy also proposes, dangerously, to cap enrollment in South Africa's research universities (still more than half white) and its overwhelmingly black undergraduate colleges, mostly in the homelands. The government says it can no longer fund the universities at existing levels.
It suggests that the African thirst for higher education, and the country's need for rapid training of skilled personnel, could best be met not at existing universities, but at a to-be-created cadre of less costly community colleges.
The ANC welcomed most of these proposals when they were introduced. The white Conservative party was appalled. However the strategy is modified, and no matter how rapidly numerous existing laws are repealed, the overturning and uprooting of current practices will be hard, bitterly contested by whites, and difficult to make final.
The government's new proposal to create a nonracial educational system is long overdue. Yet, sadly, it is bound to take 10 to 20 years to correct the deep imbalances and deficits of the present system. Even then, depending on what happens politically in South Africa, the attempt at last to be fair may have come too late to nurture a tolerant society or to give new generations of the majority the skills with which to lead their country well in the 21st century.