Real change takes time

Karen MacGregor

The pace of change in South Africa since the crumbling of apartheid has been mind-blowing. But the legacy of apartheid lingers on in schools, in the form of racism, poverty and physical segregation.

Beverley Naidoo's "The Playground" is set at the height of the transition to democracy, in 1995, one year after the first free elections.

Segregated state schools had been allowed since the early 1990s to open their doors to all children, and many white and Asian state schools were eager to accept black children, especially those in progressive urban areas and English-speaking communities. Of the almost 1,000 independent schools, most had been accepting black pupils for years, but few black families could afford a place.

Now, growing numbers of mainly middle-class black parents were bussing their children in from outlying townships, where they had been forcibly located, leaving behind schools starved of resources and plagued by violence, to seek apartheid-privileged schools in anticipation of securing homes in previously "white" areas. The transition at these schools appeared smooth. Some were majority-black within years and some were "saved" from closure by black pupils as white pupils emigrated or went into private schools.

But for many of the black pupils it was a traumatic experience. They were frequently ghettoised into special classes geared to help them cope with having to learn a second tongue quickly while coping with a demanding curriculum. They had to struggle with the disadvantages of poverty and an alien culture. The stress of some English schools on questioning also landed many of them in trouble with traditionally-minded parents, who expected uncritical respect for elders.

Many poor black children were excluded by their parents' inability to pay the fees schools can charge to top up meagre state subsidies.

Many also faced the double whammy of racism in school and hostility from some black people who accused them of being "coconuts" - white on the inside.

The story was worse in conservative Afrikaner schools, where resistance to integration by white parents provoked an angry response from black people.

There have been many incidences of race-provoked fighting between pupils.

In Vryburg in 1998, racial tension in the school engulfed the whole town after five black pupils were expelled for non-payment of fees. White parents whipped black pupils with sjamboks and police fired teargas as rampaging, stone-throwing youths overturned and torched cars. Today, 75 per cent of South Africa's pupils are black and most of them attend poor, all-black schools that are starved of resources. Nevertheless a remarkable social revolution is unfolding in thousands of the country's 28,000 schools, with white, Asian and "coloured" children more easily integrating.

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Karen MacGregor

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