Liberation through education

The fight to end apartheid has been won but the struggle to redress South Africa's problems continues. Education and an ethos of hope are key in this brave new world, writes John Burns

For the blacks of South Africa "Liberation before education" used to be the call to action. Commitment to ending apartheid meant a generation of young people were out on the dusty streets fighting the cause instead of attending school.

That ended a decade ago; the last remaining apartheid laws were repealed in 1991. Now schools in the townships are full, emphasising how much South African blacks believe education is their future.

In Soweto, about six miles south-west of Johannesburg, life is still raw and there is a sense that this enormous township of two to four million people (there are no accurate figures) has somehow been forgotten. Apartheid has ended, the world has moved on, but many issues remain unresolved.

You approach Zola Senior Primary School, in one of the poorest districts of Soweto, down a wide, rutted street between red brick huts that are family homes. There are two cars in the small staff car park and at the back of the long brick school buildings is a play area, a dusty piece of shrubland bordered by rubbish and rusty barbed wire.

Headteacher Marjorie Ngubeni is friendly, welcoming and glad to show a group of visitors from Scotland around her school of 720 pupils. She has a secretary and a depute headteacher who, like herself, has to teach for some of the time because of the drastic shortage of what are called educators, not teachers. The average class size is 55 pupils.

The education authority has recently asked Mrs Ngubeni for a range of new curricular policies. She wonders whether, on our return home, we can send her examples of our own policy statements. But policies are not her main concern. The school is desperately short of basic resources.

Three or four pupils often have to share a small desk and bench meant for two in classrooms that are otherwise virtually bare of furniture. One of the educators tells us that she would love to have a small cupboard to store some of the simple teaching materials she has made. In the staffroom there are no chairs at all, only four large tables in an otherwise empty room.

Three pupils have to share each textbook, but one classroom has six 10-year-old computers and the children sit in queues waiting for their five-minute slot. For some subjects there are no books, no equipment, nothing but the educator and the pupils' enthusiasm.

It is this obvious enthusiasm that lights up the school. The pupils are full of energy, humour, a restlessness to learn and commitment, they are extremely well behaved and courteous and, like children anywhere, they have their dreams. One 12-year-old wants to be a fashion designer; another says that being an archaeologist sounds good.

What is lacking in terms of resources is being compensated for by everyone's determination that these pupils succeed as much as possible. Even after school there is a formidable range of activities - sporting, artistic and social - to allow the children to develop their skills.

The children are proud, happy and glad to show off their talents. At one point a class of 56 pupils breaks into spontaneous song, moving and clapping in perfect rhythm to the amazing sound.

Almost every pupil wears the school's uniform. Their parents are so proud of their child's education that, no matter what their level of poverty, they do everything possible to ensure that every day their child walks to school properly dressed.

Few resources, a shortage of staff, limited finances and surrounded by poverty in the biggest township in South Africa: here was a school with everything stacked against it and yet Zola Senior Primary is alive with the spirit of education, full of children and adults who realise that their best future depends on what they can learn.

This school is a reminder that the basic approaches are essential, that the environment, a positive ethos, rewarding good work and behaviour, pride in wearing school uniform and the commitment of staff are all imperative to create a place of enthusiasm and progress.

Hundreds of miles to the west, in a remote area on the banks of the Orange river, lies Oriana and the beginnings of another attempt by white Afrikaaners to create their "volkstat". This community of 700 was established in 1994 and at the moment calls itself a limited company to avoid confrontation with the government. It is surrounded by high fencing with a "Strictly Private" sign at its only entrance. A committee decides who can live here: it has no blacks, no coloureds, only those who believe that an all-white Afrikaaner independent state is possible.

Flying the old flag and proud of it, they believe that apartheid only failed because the economy was overdependent on black workers. This time they will not make the same mistake as everything, however menial, will be done by whites.

Fifty-five per cent of its adult population have had some kind of tertiary education. There are three systems of teaching here: some children are being taught at home by their qualified parents and there is a school which follows a traditional approach. It is the third way that is of the most interest.

Oriana's model school has 37 pupils. To enrol, each is required to bring his or her own computer to school, because its educational approach depends almost totally on the use of computers.

Apart from the youngest children, who spend most of their time learning to read and write, the school is in one large classroom, where the pupils'

ages range from nine to 17. Each has their own work base with their computer and they are given individual weekly programmes in all the major subject areas on which they test themselves at each stage, using the computer. If they achieve 80 per cent or more - this is checked by their teacher - they can proceed to the next stage. If they finish the whole programme ahead of time, they accumulate the saved hours and can either decide when they want to take them off school or do extra work if they wish. The slower pupils have to stay behind at the end of each school day.

The classroom walls are covered in shelves of reference books. The two teachers are there more as facilitators and evaluators because most of the information needed for the pupils' programmes is found on the Internet. The pupils also support each other when necessary.

There is an entrepreneurial aspect to school life, with the children being encouraged to set up their own after-school businesses. These range from selling sweets to hiring out a film projector that a group of them had saved up to buy.

The computer programs used in the school are now being marketed and sold to like-minded Afrikaaners all over South Africa. It is one of the most successful businesses generated in Oriana and it ensures that the school is always well resourced.

So what lessons did we take away with us? Mainly, if Scotland wishes to become a truly multicultural society, then Oriana's model school is not the example to follow.

Certainly it encourages independent learning, producing accomplished information technology skills and an individualised system of accessing knowledge. But what it does not do is inspire social interaction, artistic creativity or teacher-inspired work. It can be a dry, prescriptive method of learning with little flexibility.

More than anything, it shows the frightening potential of the Internet. Who would have thought that computing could create another apartheid, an educational apartheid? This insular, formulaic world, this subtle system of conformity, this sense of being chosen people, is being heightened by access to cyberspace. There is no need for other agencies because the Internet has become the basis for a racist society and knowledge is its precursor.

This Oriana school, no matter how sophisticated it might appear, is a product of racism and one can only hope that education will fail to make its pupils what their parents want them to be.

We have to believe that the songs of Soweto will become the anthems of the South African renaissance where everybody will be included. The struggle in education is more critical than ever.

John Burns is headteacher of Granton Primary, Edinburgh

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you