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When a long game takes just too long

Radical changes in the education system are being hampered by the democratic process, reports Karen Mac Gregor.

South Africa's education minister, Professor Sibusiso Bengu, came under continual fire last year for his apparent slothfulness in transforming the school system. In true academic style, his approach has been to research all aspects of it before forging ahead with change.

Most of the policy changes will come on stream this year and in 1997, including new school-leaving examinations, which will for the first time see children of all races sitting the same examinations in each province.

One accusation levelled against the minister has been that considerable policy research was undertaken by African National Congress-aligned organisations in the years before democratic elections were held in April 1994, and that all he really had to do was implement their proposals.

But it could never be that easy. South Africa has a Government of National Unity which requires consultation between major parties before substantial new legislation can be passed, and education is an issue close to everybody's heart. The country also has a solid interim constitution which can be used - and is in several cases - to stave off legislation which arguably infringes people's rights.

Also, the changes in the next few years are radical, not so much in the ideological sense but in their number and nature. For those with a more long-sighted view, Mr Bengu's approach has been wise.

Among the policy proposals in the review committee report were the scrapping of state-aided schools - they will all become state schools - new governance structures, equalising spending on pupils and teachers of different races, charging compulsory fees for those who can afford them, and revising admission policies.

Basically, these policies are aimed at ensuring private money continues to flow into a school system the government cannot afford, at reducing racial injustices, and at placing more responsibility for schooling on parents - with the exception of most formerly white schools, where the present strong governing powers will be reduced.

In November, Mr Bengu said the report had been "broadly accepted" as the basis of a government white paper, but the issue of income-related school fees - touchy as many ANC supporters believe schooling should be free - needed further legal and cost analysis.

Language policy, another touchy issue especially among Afrikaners, will also alter substantially and will have a profound impact on the education and performance of African pupils especially. The switch of African children to English instruction in primary school has been blamed for high drop-out rates.

Towards a Language Policy in Education encourages multilingual schooling, with the language of instruction conforming to that spoken by the majority of pupils in the school. It also suggests two compulsory languages from the third year of primary school, and three to be encouraged from the fourth year.

And the recently-released National Teacher Education Audit Report, which found that 90 per cent of the country's 109 teacher colleges failed to train teachers properly, suggested that the entire system needed rebuilding. It proposed immediate reconstruction measures, and a national framework to regulate the supply, development and utilisation of teachers.

While new policies have been being written, fundamental restructuring of educational management at the national and provincial levels has been undertaken. It has been a complex and fraught process.

Another dissatisfaction with Mr Bengu is his low-profile leadership style. A political scientist by training, he is no politician. A charismatic smooth talker could have diverted criticism, but that is not his style - and it could cost him his job.

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