Segregation still the rule in schools

When apartheid ended in 1994, South African's new government abolished racially segregated schools. But a decade later, there is little racial mixing among students.

At Ummangaliso ("Miracle") Primary School, the oldest elementary school in Khayelitsha Township, more than 1,400 children play on the lone jungle gym during morning recess. Nearby, half a dozen women sit with large plastic buckets of sweets and soft drinks, waiting for those children with pocket money to spare. Many of the kids have already eaten the one meal of the day they can count on - the school's standard-issue two slices of bread plus a protein shake. In the school's 17 years of existence, burglars have stolen everything from bricks to toilet bowls, so a construction team is installing new security grids over the windows. Beyond them all, through the smoke of the squatter camps, stands Table Mountain.

Tuesday is Freedom Day in South Africa, honoring the first multiracial vote in 1994. But a decade after the official end of apartheid, the legacy of the former regime's racially based policies still looms large in the nation's schools.

The new government's most dramatic stride toward equalizing schools - dismantling 15 distinct departments of education and creating a single nonracially based one - came in the early heady days of democracy. Their major goals were straightforward and attainable. They successfully excised the most blatant excesses of apartheid education by officially doing away with racially divided schools and a white-supremacist curriculum.

Yet 10 years later, there is still little racial mixing in South Africa's schools, and a far more complex and fundamental problem endures: ensuring that blacks get access to equal academic opportunities.

Distribution of resources

"The overwhelming majority of resources were lavished on white students," says Edward Fiske, co-author of "Elusive Equity: Education Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa." If the new government had tried to redistribute resources - a practical difficulty, since it's not easy to split up a state-of-the-art science lab or a cricket field - Mr. Fiske says the spreading would be thin, because blacks are the overwhelming majority. "Their goal was an equitable system, but they didn't want to lose the white students."

As at more than 90 percent of South Africa's schools, the racial demographics haven't changed at Ummangaliso in the past 10 years. It remains all black.

The schools that have experienced the most racial and cultural exchange are the formerly white ones, virtually all of which now enroll at least a handful of nonwhite students.

Virtually all black schools remain all black. Whites haven't voluntarily integrated them. Anthony Hess, principal of the formerly "colored" (mixed-race) Groenberg High School in Grabouw, a wealthy fruit-farming town east of Cape Town, doesn't expect whites to be integrated. "Parents still see across racial lines," says Mr. Hess. "There's a stigma associated with being a colored school."

Apartheid has left once-white schools with better facilities than black schools. For example, a school in Grabouw maintains its excellent sports facilities, while Groenberg has no playing fields. Hess hopes that offering subjects not taught in the town's formerly white school might attract some white students, at least for a period or two.

School fees also remain a barrier to integration. In South Africa, public schools may levy whatever charge they want. "No school can deny [students] access for nonpayment, but schools can sue the parents," says Helen Ladd, coauthor of "Elusive Equity." "Schools serving middle-class kids can raise a lot more money than those in rural areas or townships."

Pupils at Ummangaliso are asked to pay 30 rands ($4.45) per year. When parents can't pay even this modest amount - and most can't - they tend to avoid any direct contact with the staff.

At Groenberg High, total student fees amount to 370,000 rands ($55,000) per year, while the formerly white school in town rakes in 2 million rands ($297,000) per year. The extra funds go toward hiring more teachers, buying new materials, and maintaining facilities.

If fees are an unofficial barrier, language is a real one. For decades, policy dictated that only the Afrikaans language could be used in schools. Now, schools can choose from 11 official languages as the medium of instruction. But in rural areas, learners may have to choose between studying in an unfamiliar language or not attending school at all.

Do you speak my language?

In the trilingual Cape Town region, English now dominates as the lingua franca. At Groenberg, 150 of its 1,400 students are ethnically Xhosa. Although students may take Xhosa as a language elective, the native Xhosa speakers must take math, history, and science courses in Afrikaans.

At one time, South African teachers were required to use prescribed texts. Today there's more freedom as to how to teach - but frequently there aren't enough books to go around. As a result, the photocopy machine is in high demand.

"Last year, I bought 80 boxes of paper, but we ran out," says Ummangaliso's principal, Mlungisi Siko. "This year, I bought a hundred, but I don't know if it will last."

Despite the scant resources, however, deputy principal Phumla Nkewaa finds pleasure in creating lessons that would not have been allowed a decade ago. Ms. Nkewaa says she likes "to take today's newspaper and develop a lesson" for the life skills class she teaches.

Last week she asked students to find pictures of South African leaders to facilitate discussions of Freedom Day.

Ummangaliso has two computers to manage a student body of nearly 1,500 (one was won in a contest last year). They must identify a dedicated room to receive a set of computers for student use. Yet classes are already oversubscribed, some with more than 60 students. Officially, classes should be capped at 40, but the school is reluctant to turn away any learners for lack of space.

A focus on outcomes-based education (OBE) also arrived in South Africa with the end of apartheid in an effort to make classroom teaching more practical. Rather than lecturing on abstract topics (such as the responsibilities of an accountant), teachers are now encouraged to set up groups with hands-on tasks (such as filling out real ledgers from a local bank).

Outcomes-based education

In the big picture, OBE is expected to prepare students better by forcing them to apply concepts rather than recite facts. It's also linked to a gradual move toward continuous evaluation, rather than an all-or-nothing testing period at the end of the year.

But changing teaching methods has proven difficult. While the demand for nonracially based schools came from the bottom up, pedagogical decisions were mostly imposed from the top down. Most of South Africa's teachers are themselves the products of apartheid education, and some are neither willing nor able to adapt to the new approaches.

There has, however, been one large gain for the nation's post-apartheid schools, many South African teachers agree. They have a stability now that didn't exist before. Though student activism had been a cornerstone in the struggle against apartheid, boycotts led to many students failing to complete their education.

But today, principal Hess says, there's been "no disruption at the schools since 1994."

A teacher's return to South Africa

ELGIN, SOUTH AFRICA - Ten years ago, while I was home in the United States studying for my last set of college exams, a revolution was taking place in South Africa. In April 1994, I devoured the international section of the newspaper daily, hungry to get as much information as I could about the coming elections and the end of apartheid.

Fascinated, I clipped the sample ballot, which was a long list of candidates with both names and small photos. Presumably the pictures were for people who couldn't read, but they helped me put a face to each name. Never before had I so badly wanted to be somewhere else.

In January, with a group of about 20, I flew to Cape Town to teach school for a year. Many of the other volunteers were like me, recent graduates with little to no teaching experience, but a keen desire to witness - and perhaps even assist - in South Africa's transformation.

My placement was teaching English as a second language at Glen Elgin, a rural school for the children of farm laborers outside Cape Town. The families were all so-called "colored."

Last Friday I returned to Glen Elgin Primary School.

The student body today is still almost all colored - there are no white students - although they are now joined by a few Xhosa-speaking African children. Afrikaans is still the primary language of instruction.

Of course, there have been some changes. The textbooks are new, as are most of the teachers. A 19th-century encyclopedia has been replaced with a computer. Tina du Toit, who attended the school herself and who now teaches fourth grade, is also now its acting principal.

But in so many ways, the transformation I came to South Africa to witness still seems far from complete.

It's chilly in the mornings here. I huddle with some of the students on the cement stoop before their teachers arrive. They know that they have Tuesday off for Freedom Day. They think it has something to do with Mandela - "He was in jail for 27 years," says one - but they're not exactly sure why.

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