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South Africa elections Thursday, 27 May, 1999, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Education: A promise hard to keep
South African school children
The government's efforts have been slow to show results
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

South African Elections
Education was where it all started. When schoolchildren took to the streets of Soweto in 1976 to protest against the inequalities of apartheid schooling, it marked the beginning of a new phase of resistance which culminated in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

But as the country approaches a second election, teachers are frustrated with the lack of change, despite the ANC government's vision of a decent standard of education for all South Africans.

"Five years ago, many of us were starry-eyed at the new education system we were promised," said last month's editorial in the monthly journal The Teacher.

"How great it would be if we lived in a world where promises were kept."

Some argue that the overall standard of education has actually got worse in the last five years.

Although all South African schools are officially non-racial, a recent report by the Human Rights Commission concluded that "racism in South African schools is flourishing".

Dr Trevor Coombe, a senior official in the Department of Education, maintains that the government never promised any quick fixes.

"There was a clear recognition that the transformation of the system was the work of decades," he says.

Long haul

And there is no denying the size of the task faced by the new administration in trying to bridge the gulf between education standards in white and black schools.

Education in the old South Africa was governed by a complex ethnically-based bureaucracy, whose legacy remains in the form of corruption and inefficiency.

Money which could be spent on classrooms or books is in some areas paid in salaries to "ghost" teachers and civil servants, who remain on the payroll despite not having turned up for work in years.

New discrimination

Racial discrimination is being replaced by social class discrimination, critics of the present system argue.

The education act passed by the new government gives a large degree of autonomy to state schools.

Segregation in the playground
Educationalists say segregation still happens in practice
School committees elected by the community can set school fees and raise additional money to top up the state funding.

Autonomy may sound like a good thing, but critics argue that it helps to perpetuate inequalities.

A school committee made up of affluent professionals is much better able to raise funds and govern the school than a committee of poor parents who may themselves be inadequately educated.

While the law exempts the poorest parents from paying school fees, parents sending their children to middle-class schools are faced with extra costs, like expensive uniforms and school outings.

In short, the schools with the best facilities cost the most - and only those black pupils who come from relatively wealthy homes are likely to secure a place.

Racism remains

But black children who do make it to a formerly white school face a new set of problems.

Classroom in South Africa
Teaching standards are often poor
In small towns where most of the white people speak Afrikaans, schools have set up separate English-medium classes, which end up being mostly black.

Even where classes are racially mixed, black pupils may face racism - whether overt or subtle - from a school establishment which remains predominantly white.

And since the vast majority of South Africans are black, it is clear that even if all the formerly white schools could be purged of racism, this would still not meet everybody's educational needs.

Funding problems

South Africa needs more classrooms and better-trained teachers - and that costs money.

Global financial pressures have forced the government to shelve its Reconstruction and Development Programme - a grand plan for social spending - in favour of a more conservative approach.

South Afrian classroom
Classrooms need repairing
Some analysts see this financial restraint as being directly responsible for the slow rate of change in South African schools.

"The education policy may be very progressive, but the redress is just not happening," says Salim Vally, a reseacher at the University of the Witwatersrand's Education Policy Unit.

"It's not just a question of throwing money around - but you can't deny that resources in schools are a problem," he adds.

Dr Coombe says that while the government has aimed to maintain its social spending levels, the amount of money spent on each pupil has declined, as the school system has grown.

He adds that the government may have to consider raising its per-pupil spending, "in order to avoid the suffocation of the system".

Policy advances

Much of the government's efforts of the past five years have been in shaping new policies and new structures - efforts which may not be immediately apparent to teachers and pupils in overcrowded, underfunded schools.

"It was imperative that we attack the inherited apartheid system root and branch," Dr Coombe argues.

Much of the criticism of the government's performance so far has been directed - rightly or wrongly - at Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu, who is due to step down after the elections.

Philippa Garson, editor of The Teacher, agrees that Dr Bengu's term of office was concerned primarily with creating new policy, but says his successor must be the one who oversees tangible improvements in education.

"There is no excuse now for not delivering," she says.

Links to more South Africa elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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