Tale of two worlds awaits a happy end

28th October 1994 at 00:00
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.

A visit to a predominantly white school and then a black township school in the city of Durban gives a graphic picture of the two worlds Nelson Mandela's post-apartheid government inherits.

Durban Girls' High School in a wealthy suburb high above the city's harbour area has a swimming pool, sports field, fully-equipped laboratories and an atmosphere of busy bustle and enthusiastic learning. It is a state-aided, "model C" school, where parents control the governing body, and it charges R1,200 (Pounds 240) a year in top-up fees. More than three-quarters of model C schools have introduced entrance fees or exams that deliberately exclude black pupils.

Durban Girls' has 1,100 pupils, 85 per cent of them white, and 60 staff. Pixie Hardman, the head, is probably unusual in her positive attitude to the expected changes; although she worries about a proposal to fund schools to a teacherpupil ratio of 1:40. Her classes currently have fewer than 25.

The school does not have an entrance examination. Pupils are selected after an interview with the headteacher. And Mrs Hardman said she has to take extra care when accepting black girls: "I have to be certain that they will fit in and succeed. Once black children go to a school like this they are called coconuts (black on the outside, white on the inside) by their friends in the township. And they can't go back once they have taken this option. Therefore I have to make sure that their English is good enough and we do provide extra language lessons.

"One of the aims of black parents is to get access to white schools. English is the language of work and it is often essential for tertiary education. Ironically it is me who has to impress upon these parents that Zulu is just as important, especially in the world of commerce."

The school has started to teach Zulu to all pupils and is looking to make it the main second language , replacing French. Mrs Hardman said that teaching tolerance and acceptance is made a big issue in the school and accepts that white teachers are going to have to adapt.

"If the move is to increase class sizes and if we cannot raise the fee to pay for more teachers then the staff will have to look at different methods of teaching. We will also have to take on more black teachers. I'm sure some Afrikaans schools will want to go private if they think their parents' can afford it."

Mrs Hardman predicts a turbulent time for her staff as changes to the curriculum are brought in to introduce a more skills-based approach. But she isn't pessimistic. She sees already that her school benefits from the cultural input of its Zulu pupils.

The welcome at Isibonelo High School in a rather less salubrious suburb of Durban could not have been more different. Instead of the electronic gates guarding Durban Girls' High, it was possible to wander in with pupils who were arriving an hour-and-a-half after the official start of the school day. The head did not want to talk to journalists and walked off, leaving his deputy principal to be interviewed.

The school is built on a quadrangle of scrubby grass strewn with rubbish and a set of concrete headless sculptures. The windows of the classrooms were either filthy or broken and there was an atmosphere of casual chaos with lessons conducted in an apparently desultory manner.

A room whose portals carried the legend "laboratory" did contain a number of redundant gas taps but no other equipment. It is just used as a classroom, said Godfrey Sibisi, the vice-principal, although there was little signs of any teaching going on that morning. The "library" contained a jumble of books and a poster of Mandela promoting learning; not that very much of that was going on.

Mr Sibisi said teacher pupil ratios had once been as high as 1:80 but now they were down to 1:40. He said: "All the teachers here are looking forward to the future. We aspire to have better facilities and extra training, but we are aware of the financial constraints. We don't expect it to happen overnight. "

Parents are expected to contribute between R5-10 (Pounds 1-Pounds 2) a year, but many struggle to pay even this low amount.

Some children have to travel more than 35 kilometres to get to school on often unreliable public transport. The school had been affected by violence and disruption in the township, but Mr Sibisi said the local community was looking for changes. A rally had recently been organised by parents and teachers in the community with the aim of motivating students and parents and impressing upon them the importance of education.

It is this sort of action that will be essential, said John Pampalis, director of the education policy unit at Natal University. He said: "The break-up of public [state] schooling in the townships means that we start at a very low base line. But we can hope to harness the local organisations that exist here - and were used during the struggle - to promote a mass campaign to make people proud of their schools and inculcate them with an enthusiasm to learn."

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