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Matching lofty ideals to reality

President Nelson Mandela sees education as the driving force behind a new more equal South Africa. Frances Mac Gregor describe the legacy of apartheid and assess the country's chances of success.

All people in South Africa, regardless of race, sex or age will be able to have free education and training in the language of their choice at the school of their choice, according to the education White Paper. But how is the new Government of national unity, led by the African National Congress, going to deliver?

The ambitious, broad-ranging 60-page document sets into motion new national qualifications, integrating academic and vocational disciplines, and new democratic governing bodies in schools, and gives the nation's nine provinces the "constitutional responsibility for establishing, running, regulating and financing schools".

It is a mammoth task. Professor Sibusiso Bengu, minister of education and training, admits that while thousands of new schools need to be built there isn't the money to do it.

And, he has said, transporting black children from the outlying townships to the fortified white, prosperous suburbs where the best schools are is not a plausible option, because of the sheer number of children involved.

White schools will be told that they cannot have entrance policies or fees that exclude black children; so can a parent demand that her child go to any school?

Professor Bengu talks about providing bursaries and subsidies for black children so they can attend state-aided schools.

But it is the fact that the government has not abolished fees altogether that has led to comment in the country's press.

The White Paper says: "The government may not be able to guarantee to provide fee-free schooling at levels of quality beyond those which are deemed affordable for all. In cases where families wish to avail themselves of a higher quality of schooling, they may need to supplement what can be afforded from public funds by their own private resources."

There could also be dispute with the teacher unions as Professor Bengu intends to upgrade the profession and work out a new salary structure.

One inherent contradiction in the ANC's plans is the devolution of power to the provinces, which lack the infrastructure and machinery at present to govern.

There will be a national qualifications system but the provinces will decide upon the curriculum and the language of learning. There are 11 "official" languages in the republic.

There may also be political friction arising out of the education policy from the centre, for example in KwaZulu-Natal province with its Inkatha majority and Western Cape with its National Party control.

The provinces will have 75 per cent of the education budget and although the White Paper acknowledges that there is a great disparity between the resources and riches in the different provinces it does not propose a convincing method of achieving more equality.

Professor Bengu said: "I must say that I have trepidations about the control of education at the provincial level. Not because I have no confidence in my provincial colleagues but because we have not tried it before. Redeploying people and rationalising is going to carry burdens, and maybe some pain to some people. Our lives may be a bit more strained than we really deserve.

"But in the final analysis all of this has to pay dividends. In two years we should be putting forward a budget that should enable us to do all the things that we say in the White Paper.

"For now we are making a desperate appeal to the government to increase its giving to education, and we are relying on the partnerships that we hope to form with other agencies, international and local. I would tend not to have fears arising out of hurdles that we cannot overcome. But in some ways it's going to be rough."

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