A woman still fighting apartheid

Harvey McGavin

Harvey McGavin talked to Sheila Sisulu, adviser to the education minister, about the challenges facing her country.

"All shall be included" is the vision statement coined by Christian Aid to celebrate its 50th birthday. But for Sheila Sisulu, special adviser to the South African minister of education who is visiting the UK as a guest of the charity, it also sums up the huge task of reintegration facing her country.

It's six years since her father-in-law Walter Sisulu was released from prison on Robben Island. A few months later Nelson Mandela was freed and the apartheid system crumbled. So what has changed?

"When I left school and tried to teach," she recalls, "the education department would not accept me as a qualified teacher. Now I am senior special adviser to the education minister. So on a personal level a lot has changed.

"Most of the change has been positive, but not as pervasive as many of us would have liked. When you look at the rural areas the change has been dramatic. Being able to get water on tap has made a massive difference to people's lives."

But despite the new government the people who walk the corridors of power are virtually the same. "My estimate is that no more than 20 per cent of the civil service has come in since the new government. In education it has taken us this long to get an enabling Bill before Parliament and even that has been blocked on technical points."

Unequal funding, a legacy of the old unequal education system, is being challenged. Teacher:pupil ratios varied wildly - from 20-to-one in white institutions to as much as 100-to-one in black schools. The government has now made funding conditional on class sizes of 35 in secondary and 40 in primary schools. Sheila Sisulu laughs when told of the furore over similar figures in this country.

"The reasons that the government is tying funding to a teacher:pupil ratio is that we have to use the teachers that are available. We cannot afford to hire new teachers until that has evened out."

Many of the schools with surplus teachers are exclusive semi-autonomous "Model C" schools in predominantly white areas. Until the law changes the government has to negotiate with governors to move teachers. "It's not so much that they are protecting the teachers it's that they are protecting the privilege of their children to be taught in small classes."

While some schools are overcrowded others are empty - a symptom of the country's shifting population. Red tape is holding back a school-building programme.

Curriculum reform is also high on the agenda especially in geography and history ("subjects that explain apartheid as a benevolent system of two teams playing together") and the question of multicultural education has to be addressed for the first time. With so many reforms to make where does she look for role models?

"There is a caution about importing models whether they are made in England or America or wherever. But one of the things I hope to do while I am here is to look at the approach to multicultural education - what has worked and what hasn't. We have 11 different languages so it is quite a challenge in education and in broadcasting (she sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation) everybody has a right to that, but the state can't pay for it all."

As a former director of the Joint Enrichment Programme aimed at improving the lot of young people through education, community work and drama, Sheila Sisulu is all too aware of the brutal effect apartheid had on the young. Those who dropped out of school to join the armed struggle were dubbed by the media "the lost generation" a term she dislikes.

The JEP, she says, was set up to challenge this notion.

"It was too simplistic a label. We have young people who have grown up in a violent society with nothing but force as a response to pressure. The youth problem is a reflection of what apartheid has done. It is a problem of a country at war with itself."

She tells the story of a play performed by a JEP group on Valentine's Day. Its theme was love but it included scenes of rape and sexual harassment by teachers and friends. "To the kids this was what love was about - your parents beating each other or being taken by force by your boyfriend."

She has three children of her own aged 23, 21 and nine. How does she teach them about apartheid?

"Because of the family situation it was easier to explain to them. Their daily reality was apartheid. They would ask me why we couldn't move to a flat nearer to their school so they didn't have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning. "

But one story sums up the injustice and violence of apartheid with a child-like logic. "When my eldest son was very young we went on our annual pilgrimage to Robben Island. Once a year they had to take this 1,000km trip to see their grandfather for half an hour.

"On the way we passed the Parliament buildings. They were very impressive buildings with guards all over the place and he said, 'mummy, what's this place?' I said, 'that's the place where they made the apartheid laws which make sure that your grandfather is in prison and your grandmother is banned and your father is in detention at times'. So then he said very innocently, 'can't it be bombed?'"

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