South Africa needs to make major improvements to teaching quality within its school system if it is to deliver Nelson Mandela's aim of educational equality for all students, the country's education minister has told TES.
In an exclusive interview ahead of Mandela's funeral on Sunday, basic education minister Angie Motshekga paid tribute to the former South African president and anti-apartheid campaigner's "extreme passion for education", and the significant progress made under his leadership. But the country's schools were still plagued by "weak infrastructure" and "poor classroom practice", she said, with many poverty-stricken parents failing to "adequately" support their children's progress.
In recent years, South Africa has invested heavily in its school facilities. In 1996, 9,000 schools had no running water; last year, this figure had dropped to 1,700. During the same period, the number of schools without electricity decreased from 15,000 to 2,800. And a landmark legal victory by education campaigners last month could finally bring an end to children learning in shacks in a country that spends more on education than any other African nation.
Under the new legislation, all schools made from mud and asbestos must be replaced with modern structures within three years. Schools' lack of water, power and sanitation will also have to be remedied. Within seven years, all schools will be required to have telephones and an internet connection, with libraries and laboratories becoming mandatory within the next decade.
The move was hailed as a "victory" by Equal Education, a movement of learners, parents and teachers campaigning for greater educational equality in South Africa. General secretary Brad Brockman said that the legislation could "improve the lives of millions of South African children by providing them with access to decent and dignified school infrastructure".
Hugh McLean, a former teacher in the country who worked with charities to improve early childhood development, said that the improvements would be a "fitting tribute to what (Mandela) lived for". But Ms Motshekga played down the significance of the legislation. "For me, the big problem is pedagogy, teaching and learning," she told TES. "We inherited a weak infrastructure, with poor classroom practice and teaching and learning. This is our biggest challenge: skilling teachers."
Engaging parents who were below the poverty line in their children's education had also proved problematic, the minister said. "Many parents are trying to scrape by and make ends meet," she said. "They don't give adequate support to their kids. We have a real challenge in (improving) parental involvement."
Under apartheid, the South African government spent more than eight times as much on the education of white children as it did on that of their black peers.
A report published last year by Brigham Young University in the US and the University of Johannesburg in South Africa argues that "no other social institution reflected the government's racial philosophy of apartheid more clearly than the education system". This inequality has still not been completely eradicated, the study finds: it concludes that black or "coloured" (mixed race) students drop out or repeat classes frequently enough to fall an average of two years behind their white classmates by the age of 18.
This January, the graduation rates of the first "born free" generation (those born in 1994 under the country's first truly democratic government, led by Mandela) were published. Less than half of all students made it to graduation. Of those who did, 74 per cent passed their final exams. But with pass marks fixed at low levels, there was widespread scepticism about results.
Mr Brockman said that Mandela's vision of education as a "great engine of personal development" had still not been realised. "Quality education is still the preserve of the middle class in South Africa," he said. "(But) now white and black are able to pay the fees demanded by former whites- only schools.
"This inequality perpetuates South Africa's high social inequality, and prevents the realisation of Mandela's ideal of a democratic and free South Africa."
But Ms Motshekga insisted that South Africa had made great strides forward. "Before, education was `first come, first served'. The state wasn't obliged to give a space (to a student) if all (a school's) spaces were full. Now, 90 per cent of kids are in school," she said.
And Mandela's belief in the importance of schooling had driven substantial improvements, she added. "He made education a human rights issue. He put it at the centre of his government.We took for granted who he was. It's only now he's gone that we're forced to reflect."