Long way home

28th October 1994 at 00:00
South Africa's new minister of education, Professor Sibusiso Bengu (left), has survived hardship and exile to play his key role in rebuilding the country post-apartheid. Frances Rafferty and Karen Mac Gregor report on his vision of a new system of learning with equality at its heart.

The road from teaching in a tiny rural school in the rolling green hills of KwaZulu-Natal to plush government offices in a Pretoria tower block has been a treacherous journey for Professor Sibusiso Bengu. Now, aged 60, he is installed as the country's minister of education and training, heading a department seen as the linchpin of the African National Congress-led government's plan for national recovery and reconstruction.

His past bears witness to the momentous battles and internal struggles of his country. As well as suffering as a victim of the apartheid regime, he has been on the run or in exile for more than a quarter of his life, under sentence of death after falling out with Inkatha's fiery Chief Mangosutu Buthelezi.

He entered the political arena in the mid-l970s as an activist in Inkatha, the powerful Zulu-based cultural movement, and rose to become secretary-general. The row with Buthelezi came when he argued for mass resistance to the apartheid regime - a stance which was in conflict with Inkatha's policy of co-operation with the white government. In l978, after he had been publically denounced and branded a traitor, Bengu fled to Europe in fear of his life with his wife Ethel Funeka Msizi and their five children.

For the next 13 years, the exiled professor worked for the Lutheran World Foundation in Geneva as executive secretary for research and social action. His areas of research included hunger in 31 African countries. He received several international awards, is a member of 11 boards of trustees, a national council member of the African Studies Association of South Africa and vice-president of the Southern Africa-European Institute for International Relations.

Like so many other exiled South Africans, he got his ticket home in February 1990, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison and former president F W de Klerk's announcement of reform. He was offered the vice-chancellorship of the University of Fort Hare, accepted it and returned to South Africa in July 1991.

By then a prominent member of the ANC, despite his Zulu tribal heritage, Professor Bengu was voted on to the party's electoral list for South Africa's first democratic elections. In the run-up he reluctantly left his university job, but he was to face a much bigger task on becoming a member of Mandela's ministerial team.

Today Professor Bengu sits at his desk behind the new South African flag - the pride of the new republic despite its "flying Y-fronts" nickname.

Retaining the gentle, quiet air of the academic he was before entering the political fray, Professor Bengu shows no signs of the stroke he suffered soon after he began his job. He knows that his task is immense and an early bruising encounter with civil servants, left over from the old regime, has given him a taste of the battles to come.

"I may not show it, but I am excited about the future and my job. My task now is to ensure that education and training in South Africa redresses inequality and leads to cultural enrichment for all the people of this land. Our education and training system is the seed-bed of our national renewal. We have an obligation to ensure that it is well tended."

His legacy is a system which left more than a third of the population illiterate, with education spending three times higher for white children than for black. The consultation period for his education White Paper - another term inherited from a colonial past - which sets out the new government's proposals for an education overhaul, ends next week. In it he estimates a backlog of 35,000 classrooms in 1994 and anticipates annual demand for 12,500 classrooms between 1994 and 1999.

"The 1994-95 budget is constraining in a way that makes our lives not only difficult but impossible," he said. "We are in government but we work with the budget of apartheid. The first thing we have to do is shift funding, but our scope is limited: 82 per cent of the budget is spent on personnel, which renders us capable of making shifts only within 18 per cent of the budget.

"Instead, we have to maximise current resources and make sure we don't pay for empty classes, or classes where there are few pupils. Schools that have enjoyed privilege in terms of funding will get less and schools which for many years have been denied resources and even the minimum quality of education, will get relatively more.

"We will fill classrooms, giving sub-sidies to schools based on teacherpupil ratios of 1 to 40, and will penalise those with empty classrooms. The greatest shifts in the allocation of resources is going to be in that area."

Although there will be some degree of transport subsidy to distribute pupils between schools, the minister insisted that the new system would not be based on bussing.

"I don't see bussing as a solution for South AfricaInot like in the United States, where black children were transported to white areas where there were good schools. Here blacks are in the majority, and we cannot move huge numbers.

"Schools must be open. The challenge is how to open the doors of learning to all South Africans. In view of that challenge we are saying that, firstly, in government schools no child should be turned away on the basis of failure to pay. Not in the state-aided schools and not in the private schools."

The other major tasks will be the upgrading of teachers and an attempt to ensure that schools in the black townships, often the focus of resistance to the apartheid regime, begin again to function as centres of learning. Apart from the disruption caused by violence in the townships, school strikes and lack of commitment from teachers have left many schools in a sorry state.

"We must introduce a culture of learning. But it will not just float along on its own," Professor Bengu added. "It must be tied to the provision of new schools. It must be tied to the quality of schools, and the rehabilitation of schools. So many are in a state of disrepair. We need to go into those schools and paint them and repair them. To do that, we need to mobilise students and parents. We need to give parents a sense of ownership of schools.

"The challenge is also to shift teachers so that we get more highly qualified teachers in black schools, and to upgrade teachers already there. There are some non-governmental organisations that are prepared to bring in teachers from abroad. The British Overseas Development Administration is already involved in financing reforms to the civil service and there are groups in the United States that are prepared to bring in people who will train teachers."

The White Paper sets out the plan for 10 years of free, compulsory education. From next year all six-year-olds will have to attend school as the start of a rolling programme. A new national qualifications system which attempts to integrate academic and vocational elements is proposed. A system of open learning is to be introduced which will allow adults who have had no formal education another chance.

The upheaval will mean that the white population, which enjoys the better-equipped schools and better-trained staff, will see changes. Many white schools are considering leaving the state system. Others will have to readjust.

Professor Bengu said: "The broad base of the principles that are being put forward - of equity, of access, extending lifelong learning and training to all people irrespective of race, creed, gender, age and so on are not going to be opposed. But people will react emotionally in order to preserve privilege. It is going to take a bit of time for these people to accept that things have got to change."

Sibusiso Mandlenkosi Emmanuel Bengu was born at the Kranskop Mission Station in KwaZulu-Natal on May 8, 1934, the second son of a pastor of the Lutheran Church. A childhood spent close to God left a lasting impression. He remains deeply religious and maintains a close relationship with the Church.

"When I finished Standard 7 [the ninth year of school, aged 14] it was quite clear that my father could no longer afford to send me to school. We were seven in the family," he said.

Pastor Bengu asked the church for a loan to enable his bright young son to stay on at school, but loans were only available for trainee teachers. Young Sibusiso accepted that option, attended teachers' training college and gained his initial teaching qualification with a first class grade.

Within two years, still only 16-years-old, the student was back in the classroom, teaching at the Entumeni Primary School, Zululand and paying to continue his high school studies by correspondence.

Three years later he returned to the Umpumulo Teachers' Training College, where he did so well that he was asked by the principal to stay on as a teacher trainer. In 1960 he gained his matriculation certificate and decided to go to university. To his delight, one of South Africa's leading universities, the University of the Witwatersrand, accepted him, but there was a problem.

"By then the apartheid government was already bent on creating tribal colleges for African students and I was refused authorisation to attend," he said.

He was also refused permission to go to the historically black University of Fort Hare, South Africa's oldest African university. Because he was Zulu-speaking and not Xhosa-speaking, he was told he had to attend the University of Zululand. In a dilemma about whether to go there or leave the country to study, he sought the advice of his uncle Chief Albert Luthuli, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was told, "Go to the bush college and study hard, and prove that it is not worth your grades."

After graduating with a BA degree in English and history in 1964, Bengu, then aged 30, began working at the Eshowe Teachers' Training College. Two years later he gained an honours degree in history through the distance-learning University of South Africa. He decided to register for a part-time master's degree - and once again had a brush with apartheid, this time in more subtle guise.

His research was into the origin of the treaty system between the British government and the chiefs. He spent five years studying archives and writing his thesis.

"Then one day the professor said he was going on sabbatical, and disappeared with my manuscripts. When he reappeared he had rewritten the thesis to prove that the treaty system formed the foundation upon which apartheid and the homeland system was built, and therefore that apartheid was introduced by the British and not by Afrikaners. "He told me to read his rewrite and said: 'If you agree, you will have your master's degree.' I read it, did not agree and chose not to get my master's degree. That delayed me quite a bit."

He subsequently got a scholarship to study for a doctorate at the University of Geneva.

He was awarded his PhD in political science and his thesis, African Cultural Identity and International Relations, was later published in popular form under the title Searching After Gods Not Our Own (1976).

In 1969, with the help of the Lutheran church, Professor Bengu founded the Dlangezwa High School in KwaZulu-Natal, and served as its principal - with a break while he was studying abroad - until 1976. "We produced excellent results. We were one of the best schools in the country," he says proudly. "We selected our students, we selected our staff, and we produced excellence. It is not only in white schools that there is excellence. That is why I am now calling on South Africans to set up centres of excellence in black education. "

Despite the immense task on his hands, Professor Bengu is optimistic: "We must be ambitious, and we must render service to the country in a way that it deserves. We are capable of making education the key to reconstruction and development in South Africa.

"For me, as long as we move towards that vision, nothing can go wrong. "

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