Black students struggle to rise above wreckage of push for new S. Africa Teacher strikes, lack of textbooks cripple education

August 22, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

SOWETO, South Africa -- Enoch Selepe sits in a desk outside the deserted Naledi high school, studying a workbook on Julius Caesar, trying to salvage what he can from the wreckage of his last year in high school.

In October, the 19-year-old faces the most critical hurdle South African students must clear -- the so-called matrics. Passing these matriculation exams is the equivalent of getting a high school diploma. The possibility of college and decent employment lie on the other side.

But Mr. Selepe is only on Chapter 4 of his English book. He should be on Chapter 9. He is this far behind because his senior year of high school has been sabotaged from all sides.

And he is not alone. Even as this country progresses toward democracy in which the overwhelming black majority would rule, events continue to conspire against thousands of young black students who should be in the next generation of leaders.

At the beginning of the school year in January, there were no books or supplies. Black schools, which get about one-quarter of the money that white schools get and answer to a completely separate state bureaucracy, had to struggle for a month or more until supplies arrived.

In May, the Congress of South African Students, a mainly black group, began protesting a $15 fee charged for matriculation exams.

Lengthy strikes by black students finally resulted in its elimination.

And now, just as schools are starting up again after the monthlong winter holiday, the South African Democratic Teachers Union has ignored court injunctions and gone out on strike.

Members of that union teach only in nonwhite schools. They are asking for a 15 percent pay raise instead of the 5 percent offered by the government and a minimum wage of $500 a month. Some 90,000 teachers earn less than that.

One-third pass matrics

And so, as white pupils attend their well-funded public schools -- most of them now theoretically open to all races but still overwhelmingly white -- black students face another disruption of their education.

In the best years, only about a third of black students pass the matrics. This year, some think that might fall to less than 10 percent. More than 95 percent of whites pass the exam.

Mr. Selepe was one of a half-dozen students who came to their high school and sat in the open-air corridor outside the empty classrooms, studying their textbooks, trying the defeat the odds against them.

Still, he was not optimistic, not just about passing, but even about taking his matrics. "I don't think that we are going to write the exam this year, especially if this strike continues," he said.

Losing a whole year in black education has not been unusual since 1976 when schools, led by those in Soweto including Nameli High, erupted on June 16.

The demonstrations were against the requirement that subjects be taught in Afrikaans despite the lack of teachers qualified in that language, which was seen by many blacks as the language of their oppressors.

Those protests quickly spread to other black townships and became more than a dispute over language, growing into a general uprising against the apartheid system.

Life in South Africa was never the same after 1976, with protests continuing, some would say, until the present day.

And schools often remained the focal point, battlegrounds for everything from ideologies to gangs, with education the inevitable victim. "Liberation before education" was a popular slogan.

But with the country nearing its first open, nonracial elections, and a black government on the verge of taking power, these continued assaults on black education seem particularly tragic.

Roots in apartheid

As with so many tragedies in South Africa, its roots lie in apartheid. Part of that system of isolating the races was to dismantle the church-run schools that educated people such as Nelson Mandela and replace them with so-called Bantu education, state-run schools that would educate blacks only for menial tasks.

Though Bantu education policies were abandoned following the 1976 uprising, the government maintained separate school administration systems for the different race classifications.

"In South Africa, we presently have 18 different departments dealing with education," said City Sedibe, a history teacher in a Soweto high school, including in his calculation the bureaucracies in the so-called independent homelands.

"What we've been saying all along is that we should have one department and one education for the country," he said.

"The whites have got everything. Where I teach is supposed to be a technical high school, but we don't even have one decent laboratory. Most teaching is theoretical, nothing practical, because we don't have the equipment. But in white schools, everything is there."

Mr. Sedibe was talking as a meeting of striking teachers was breaking up. He said the teachers were willing to work extra hours, perhaps even on Saturdays and Sundays, to help students make up time lost during their strike.

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