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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
SA poor's education struggle
By Justin Pearce
BBC News Online, South Africa

Lucia Sikhakhane, 17, regards her school - Bophasenatla Secondary - as one of the best schools in Soweto.

students peeping from broken windows
Schools in poor suburbs lack proper facilities
"The education is offered is good, even though we lack materials. The teachers teach well."

But talk to her for a while and you realise that being the best school in Soweto is only relative.

"Winter is coming, the windows and doors are broken - the classrooms are not worth being called classrooms. Not all of them have electricity. And the toilets... eish!"

Extra staff

Ten years after the introduction of democracy in South Africa, teachers, pupils and the government all agree that there is still a long way to go in terms of ironing out the inequalities in education.

The separate education ministries with their separate budgets for different races disappeared a decade ago.

Faced with a funding shortage, government policy since the last years of apartheid has changed allowing the schools to set their own fees.

Former white schools in the suburbs charge R10,000 ($1,500) a year or more to maintain the sports fields and science laboratories bequeathed to them by the old system.

Teachers' salaries are paid by the government, but wealthier schools can use their funds to employ extra staff and reduce the size of classes.

Hungry students

At Bophasenatla Secondary, class size is the least of the problems.

Johannesburg schoolchildren
There is still a long way to go to iron out education inequalities
Asked what the greatest challenge facing teachers and pupils is, teacher Pixie Jafta does not hesitate.

"It's poverty. Learners come to school with no food - they haven't even eaten overnight - we have to share our lunch with them," she says.

The government-funded school feeding scheme covers only primary schools, not high schools.

Although school fees are only R150 (about $25) a year, Ms Jafta says this is beyond the means of most parents at Bophasenatla Secondary.

"90% of them are not working. Many are from squatter camps." said Ms Jafta.

The school has a policy of not turning pupils away on the grounds of non-payment, though this puts a strain on the school's own resources.

Funding schools

Textbooks are an unimaginable luxury for most pupils.

The photocopier supplied by the education department is kept busy.

The government can not do everything, It should not spoil people, make them play needy and look for handouts.
Joshua Sephetho
The government acknowledges that inequalities persist.

"There is a huge underclass, which is black, schooling in conditions of difficulty," says Duncan Hindle, deputy director-general in the Department of Education.

Mr Hindle says the government is addressing this by means of a funding plan which divides schools into five strata according to the income levels in the community which they serve.

The lower the income bracket of a school, the greater the government funding allocated to each pupil.

White households

One outstanding problem which the government is trying to address is that the calculation is done by province, so that a poor child in a rich province still gets a bigger bite of government funding than a poor child in a poor province.

South African teacher
In poor areas schools have fewer teachers
Then there is the question of poor children living in rich suburbs - for example, the children of domestic servants living in white households.

Schools are not allowed to turn a child away on the grounds of non-payment of fees, and when enrolling a child are forbidden to ask the parents whether they have the means to pay the fees.

But Mr Hindle believes some school principals make their own judgements on whether parents can or cannot pay, and take this into account.

"We know that is happening around the country - in rich and in poor schools," says Mr Hindle.

This, in addition to the long distances between low-income homes and high-income schools, forms a barrier to poor pupils getting into the best-equipped schools.

'Government handouts'

Lucia Sikhakhane admits some things have changed since 1976, when language policy sparked riots in Soweto.

Poor students are not turned away for lack of fees in most schools
"We are able to express ourselves in our own languages. Our mothers were only allowed to use Afrikaans. We do what we want to do, in spite of the government," she said.

Joshua Sephetho, who has taught at Bophasenatla Secondary since 1978, says he has seen a real difference since the end of apartheid.

After the school was identified as "dysfunctional", and government intervened to encourage the private sector to start sponsoring the school.

< "The government can not do everything, It should not spoil people, make them play needy and look for handouts. We would like to create people who can create jobs for themselves. People must learn to take responsibility for themselves and the community," said Mr Sephetho


Dr Salim Vally, head of the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, believes that South Africans deserve more.

"It is not difficult for any government to do better than apartheid governments," Dr Vally argues.

"The real issue is whether or not delivery of social services under the ANC government has begun to fundamentally and energetically challenge the patterns of poverty and inequality consolidated under apartheid," said Dr Vally.

He said it is not a secret that quality or meaningful education is only open to those who can afford to pay for it.

Lucia's classmate, Betty Donaishe puts it another way: "I would tell Thabo Mbeki to come here and see the situation. Then he would maybe do something about it."


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