Stuck in a poor learning environment


Education: Despite apartheid's demise, a lack of classrooms forces many black students in South Africa to gather outdoors.

October 24, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MHLWAZI, South Africa - Ten-year-old Lamlile Sithole sat in her fourth-grade civics class at Thembokuhle Primary School on a recent morning, staring at a question scrawled across the chalkboard: "Who is the government?"

In unison, Sithole and her 26 classmates recited the answer: "One. The government is the most important body in the country," they chanted. "Two. The government is responsible for many things. Three. They make sure our country is safe for all of us to live in. Four. To provide us with important things like health, education, roads and pensions."

If Sithole took a moment to look around - at the gathering storm clouds above her head, the goat wandering among her classmates' desks, and the strong breeze that toppled grade three's chalkboard - she might have noticed a glaring omission from this list of government responsibilities and her life: a classroom.

Sithole and her classmates are what South Africa calls "learners under trees," students who attend classes outside because their poor or overcrowded schools lack classroom space to accommodate them.

At Thembokuhle Primary, an hour's drive from the nearest paved road deep in the rolling hills of KwaZulu Natal province, a tree, in fact, would be improvement. There aren't any on the school grounds, so the 92 students in grades one to four arrange their desks and chairs each morning along the edge of a soccer field with nothing to shield them from the scorching summer sun, winter's snowfall, bitter autumn winds and now the spring rains.

"It gets hard because of the wind, the rain and the cold. Even the sun makes it difficult for the children to see the chalkboard," says Gloria Nzuza, the fourth-grade teacher.

Ten years after the end of apartheid, the legacy of its inferior education system for blacks is painfully visible in the thousands of black students who await a roof over their heads.

More than 400 schools in the rural areas of the country regularly hold classes outdoors, according to the latest government statistics. A new National Department of Education survey also found that there are more than 400,000 students attending schools classified as dangerous or inadequate because they are falling down, constructed from mud, contain asbestos and lack running water, toilets, electricity and other basic services.

At Thembokuhle, for instance, the government built only the two classrooms used by the fifth- and sixth-graders. The majority of the school's 139 students learn outdoors. When the remaining classrooms will be built, no one knows.

Every month or so, local South African newspapers feature newly discovered tree schools where students study outdoors or are housed in ramshackle buildings.

In a recent issue of a Sunday newspaper, teachers at a high school in KwaZulu Natal province complained their school lacked classrooms, running water and electricity. Although it had been promised new classrooms in 1996, the school was still without them. To accommodate its 570 students, the school's principal built flimsy shelters or set up classrooms outside. Two days before the newspaper's visit, the area had been blanketed with snow.

The existence of such schools in Africa's economic powerhouse prompts outrage, anger and embarrassment, from South African President Thabo Mbeki down to teachers and students like Sithole.

"This is a national disgrace," South African Education Minister Naledi Pandor said, speaking at the opening of Parliament this year when she vowed that by March 2005 no child in the country would learn under a tree or in a mud school.

Similar goals have been set before by the government and not met, partly because of mismanagement but largely because of the overwhelming gap between the country's needs and resources.

In 1994, the new black-led government inherited an education system that had actively sought to provide blacks with inferior education, spending on each black student as little as 20 percent of the amount showered on each white student.

Since the first democratic elections in 1994, more than 50,000 classrooms have been planned or built, and thousands more schools have been equipped with toilets, electricity and water. Yet the average school in historically white areas would be a palace compared with what's available in rural areas. A recent government survey concluded that repairing, expanding and building the schools the country needs would require the construction of 12,000 new classrooms at a cost of about $7.5 billion.

Meeting these goals will take years. In announcing her vow to eliminate the problem of tree schools, Pandor acknowledged that the government has money and plans for only 95 new schools this year.

Some schools take matters into their own hands. Parents of Thembokuhle students recently pooled their money to build two classrooms, but they were so poorly constructed that they collapsed during a storm not long after they were completed.

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