Going for gold in rainbow nation

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Last month in Pretoria I watched a television concert of a thousand black, white and mixed-race singers combined in harmony in the Deus Irae. Once I sat on the Randburg Waterfront drinking Rooibos tea, as black and white children happily revolved on a roundabout over the marina.

One looks to see such examples of positive racial integration as symbols of hope in Mandela's South Africa. The overall feeling one has is of the immensity of the task facing the Rainbow Nation, and the extraordinary complexities of its society. A white friend tells me that one cannot hope to understand South Africa without living there for at least two years.

In Soweto, that vast sprawl where much of the black work-force of Johannesburg was forced to live, the contradictions are manifest. There is middle-class Soweto: neat, even florid, brick-built villas with well-established gardens and all the amenities of the suburb. Our guide told us that there are 23 millionaires living in Soweto - Rand millionaires but still enormously rich by the standards of most of their fellow citizens. And close to these comfortable streets, is an "informal settlement" of 3,200 shanties, tents, barely enclosed shelters, each housing at least one family. There is no electricity and no sewerage system.

The settlement is a by-product of savage unemployment, uncontrolled immigration from neighbouring and poorer African states, and the Government's relaxation of the laws controlling land occupation. Councils are unable to recognise these settlements, because they cannot afford to provide services for them.

We were in South Africa on a British Council-sponsored trip to work with policy makers and technical college staff, to look at the development of FE, and to see where our own experience might be of help.

A Green Paper was published in April, under the title Preparing for the 21st Century through Education, Training and Work. One is struck by the many similarities with home. It recognises that the system is characterised by widely different standards and quality, that there is a damaging academicvocational divide, that there are too few second-chance opportunities, funding is uneven and that there has been no overall vision.Just like us, we thought, plus the legacy of apartheid, mass unemployment,a fractured economy, and wholly inadequate infrastructure.

South Africa has some world-class universities. It has excellent technikons, degree-awarding technological institutions soon likely to gain university status - their graduates are currently faring better in the jobs market than those from universities.

The biggest college in Johannesburg is surrounded by 12ft walls and barbed wire. The college closes at 4pm: students don't go out at night. But they do in Durban, where some good entrepreneurial college management begins to signal new possibilities, and they do in Thaba N'chu, serving a township 30 kilometres outside Bloemfontein, where students who have worked all day in the "white" city come to seek qualifications in office skills and building crafts, in workshops like those we used to run in Britain 30 years ago.

There are 150 colleges in South Africa, and a population of 48 million. Levels of literacy and numeracy, especially in rural areas, are low. Prospects of formal employment for most black school-leavers and college graduates are lower. The curriculum, or much of it, is of doubtful relevance. Many staff are inadequately trained. These issues, and those of management capability, will need to be addressed urgently if ambitious structural reforms are to be successful.

South Africa has two distinct economies, black and white. It has also had two distinct education systems. Reform of the latter is the key to the restructuring of the former, and the only means of securing national cohesion and equality of opportunity. There are many countervailing forces: white flight, both from the public education system and from the country; white supremacist movements such as the AWB, which talks about establishing white homelands; discontent with affirmative action employment policies, designed to right the wrongs of the past but in danger of weakening effective areas of public life.

There can be no doubt that the vision for change is right. They know where the deficits are; they know the crucial importance of the development of a robust, confident, autonomous further education sector. South Africa deserves to succeed; not all its gold lies in the ground.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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