Cheerful, but in need of cash

Heather Neill

Despite municipal strikes, high crime figures and an already stretched economy under further pressure from immeasurable illegal immigration, South African black people are optimistic. The election was only last year, miracles have already been achieved - such is the refrain you hear everywhere, in Soweto, Cape Town and KwaZulu.

Education is the crux of change. Since the Soweto riots of 1976, when children died in protests against the use of Afrikaans as the medium for teaching, many have had scant opportunity to learn. Under President Mandela's government, helped by a policy of "affirmative action" (employing blacks rather than whites where possible) a target of 60 per cent blacks in all jobs has been set for the turn of the century. Education and training are urgently needed to deliver suitable candidates.

Affirmative action has already affected some teachers. An extreme group, the Azanian Students Movement, is demanding that all white teachers be replaced immediately by blacks. Last month The Cape Times ran the story of a Soweto teacher, Louise Owen, who has devoted herself to a township school for the past 12 years. When the ASM demanded she leave, her pupils united to protect her.

Unemployment is a cloud hanging over some 5,000 teachers in Western Cape Province. They have been told that they may lose their jobs if more money is not found soon.

Western Cape, with a high Afrikaner and Cape Coloured population, has traditionally been generously funded. Now budgets are being equalised across the provinces (government money is allocated to education by each province) the previously better off may feel the pinch.

Nelson Mandela, who is spoken of with veneration by both blacks and whites, is committed to education as a priority. Limited edition gold, silver and bronze medallions showing his head are being offered world-wide by the South African Mint for Education Africa in the hope of raising millions.

Some expansion is planned. A R600 million (Pounds 100 million) government scheme, bolstered by foreign donations, intended to support students in higher education has just been announced.

Money is desperately short, however. According to proposed new rules, everyone, black or white, will pay what they can afford, which in practice means most black families pay nothing (there is up to 50 per cent unemployment among the black population).

Most blacks seem to welcome this, but it could be seen, as John Pampallis, director of the education policy unit at the University of Natal in Durban, points out, to compromise the African National Congress's commitment to free education for all.

In the run-up to the election in April 1994 there were numerous projects to teach people about democracy. Now it is time for the next stage, for local elections, and there are many stumbling blocks - in Buthelezi's KwaZuluNatal they have been postponed altogether - and once again educational schemes have been set up to persuade people to register.

John Kani, director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, was involved in the pre-general election schemes. Now he and his colleagues are facing a new, insidious challenge - Aids. At the request of schools and community groups, the theatre takes the safe-sex message to young people using drama. Leaflets and other campaigns have had little effect.

They also deal with issues such as drug and alcohol abuse and racism as well as Shakespeare. Teachers requested workshops on Romeo and Juliet a few years ago. The Market Theatre performers devised a seven-scene version and presented it in African dress. The lovers' families became representatives of the ANC and Inkhata parties, the two main rival black political parties, or Xhosas and Zulus. News of this work spread and now 200,000 students a year benefit. John Kani is one of those pushing for the arts to be a compulsory part of the curriculum; even in white schools they are relegated to after-school activities.

Highly articulate and black himself (his parents paid for his education) Kani is in favour of means testing and affirmative action, "but I'm not in favour of people being put in positions for which they are not qualified. There must be seconding of people to get trained."

Despite all the optimism, however, change can falter for the old divisive reasons. A R20 million college, for instance, Damelin Management School, planned for the smart Hyde Park district of Johannesburg, has been opposed by residents who "fear once completed the building will change their suburb's character, resulting in a drop in property prices".

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Heather Neill

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