Bill Gates has pledged six digital villages as black South Africa embraces hi-tech. But there are still schools where the sole equipment in the science lab is a sink
The road to Mamelodi is busy, the pavements are crowded and there is an air of activity about the place. Like Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, Mamelodi is a historical invention, a township built by the previous South African regime to house the workers who support the nearby city of Pretoria. Like Soweto, it's in some ways a city of ghosts, with reminders of those who fought and died in the struggle for a better, fairer life for people of all races.
In Soweto that memory is poignantly expressed by the photographs displayed in a series of old lorry containers arranged in a semi-circle outside a church. The containers have now been joined by a dignified monument erected by the present government to remember Hector Pieterson, the 13-year-old schoolboy killed at the beginning of the disturbances which led to the end of apartheid. On the memorial is the famous photograph of Pieterson's body being carried away on June 16 1976, when he was the first of more than 100 people to die during one of the bleakest periods of a troubled nation's history.
Visitors to the memorial take away other memories. The pride with which local people show their artefacts to visitors is humbling and brings home the reality of lives where resistance to apartheid meant not just joining a few student marches but seeing your children shot or beaten for daring to do so. The smiling faces of the children at the school opposite the memorial are also memorable; they are interested in the endless procession of visitors from around the world who come to this dusty patch of grass in front of a Catholic church.
Language was at the heart of the 1976 uprising, when students protested at being made to learn in Afrikaans, the language identified with their oppressors. Now South Africa has 11 official languages, and Afrikaans is one of them. The government is committed to reconciliation, but without forgetting the painful memories of the past. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, people are coming to terms with the injustices of the past, and amnesties are granted where crimes are considered to have been politically inspired.
For the children of Zakhele Primary School in Mamelodi, the events in Soweto are stories in a history book which happened before they were born. They are growing up in the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation", but not everything can change within a few years. Like all township schools, Zakhele Primary is poorly equipped; the government provides books, paper and pencils, but that's all. Schools in more prosperous and mostly white areas can rely on parents to raise large sums of money, but this is never going to be a realistic option where parents are unemployed and living in poverty.
The principal, Fikile Manzini, explains: "Many of our children come from a nearby squatter camp; their parents have nothing." Despite their difficulties, the staff at the school have made the most of what they have. The school grounds are immaculate. "I am only sorry our soil is so poor that we cannot grow food. Many of our children come to school hungry and I would like to be able to feed them before they learn," says Mrs Manzini.
Mrs Thandi Mnguni's class is a whirl of activity. Forty children are working away, some groups working with home-made alphabet cards and others writing in their books in one of the languages they speak. It is a sobering reflection for the average British visitor to note that most black South Africans speak five or six languages and probably understand a few more.
All the pupils wear uniform, and many have long journeys to get to school. It is all very different from St Alban's College, where Mrs Mnguni's husband, Phanuel, is Outreach co-ordinator.
At first glance it is easy to make false assumptions about St Alban's. It has extensive equipment and a large, impressive technology suite. There is no shortage of books and the school has recently developed science materials which it has published on CD-Rom. It is at this point that the expectations are confounded, for St Alban's has made those materials available to others free of charge.
St Alban's has worked with less privileged sections of the community through the Outreach programme for which Phanuel Mnguni is now responsible. The school has been racially mixed for many years, as were many of the church and private schools even under the former regime.
St Alban's works in many ways with the people of Mamelodi. Every day, when the children of Zakhele Primary go home, other buses arrive at the school. They are filled with eight-year-olds - 540 of them - who come for extra lessons to help them with the difficult transition from their mother tongue to English as the medium of instruction. This transition is a daunting hurdle for many children, and teachers have identified this as the crucial stage at which to offer help. Many children are also taken by bus to St Alban's College, so that they can use the school's extensive suite of computers to develop their maths and word-processing abilities.
For most South African schools, computers are an unheard-of luxury; many schools still have no toilets or electricity. But the government has an implementation plan to develop technology-enhanced learning over the next five years, in time for the implementation ofa new national curriculum.
If computers are to be used effectively, it is essential that teachers are given the appropriate support. At the Mamelodi teachers' centre, Matthew Laka has built up an impressive IT facility, with the support of St Alban's and other fund-providers. The centre has e-mail and other Internet facilities through a radio link to St Alban's. It opened in 1987 when it consisted of nothing more than a room with a telephone, but it now has purpose-built premises, although not yet containing everything it needs.
Matthew Laka explains: "We have a science lab but all it contains is a sink. With science equipment and facilities we could be so much more effective. " Matthew Laka has carefully costed and prepared plans for new science labs, but is awaiting a benefactor.
The Computeracy Centre opened in October 1996. The low-cost building was constructed from a set of lorry containers, painted in bright colours, topped off with flags, and presenting a proud and joyful sight from the neighbouring road and from the Nelson Mandela Park, another community initiative supported by Matthew Laka. The centre provides training in IT skills for young people from the local community. It is run by a former student, and at least one other trainee is now working for Microsoft.
Mamelodi is becoming a hopeful and developing place. Things can get better, it shows, when there is commitment, vision on the part of individuals and institutions and support from outside agencies or governments so that progress can be achieved at a pace that will maintain motivation. And new science laboratories at the Mamelodi teachers' centre would certainly motivate a lot of teachers.