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Apartheid's Long Shadow

While South Africa has made great progress in the last two decades, it's still struggling to deal with the legacies of apartheid

By Celia W. Dugger in Khayelitsha, South Africa

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Last year, seniors at Kwamfundo high school, outside of Cape Town, sang freedom songs and protested outside the staff lounge because their accounting teacher had once again failed to show up for class. With national examinations coming up that would determine whether they could go to college, they demanded a replacement.

"We kept waiting, and there was no action," says Masixole Mabetshe, who failed the exams and now, without a job, passes the days watching TV.

Thousands of schools across South Africa are filled with students who dream of being the accountants, engineers, and doctors this country desperately needs, but the education system is often failing the very children depending on it most to escape poverty.

So much so that South Africa is at grave risk, analysts say, of entrenching its racial and class divide rather than bridging it. Half the country's students never make it to 12th grade. Though some formerly all-white suburban schools are excellent, many students who attend rural and township schools are so badly educated that they qualify for little but menial labor, fueling the nation's high rates of unemployment and crime.

The inequality that persists in South Africa's schools today has its roots in apartheid, the government-run system of rigid racial segregation that was in place for much of the 20th century: In a nation that was then 70 percent black, a white minority ruled, denying blacks basic rights and essentially treating them as aliens in their own land.

The End of Apartheid

In the late 1980s, the South African government came under increasing pressure to end apartheid. Many countries, including the U.S., imposed economic sanctions on South Africa to pressure it to change, and its athletes were barred from the Olympics and most international competitions.

Things began to change in 1990 when the government legalized black political groups like the African National Congress; freed A.N.C. leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison; and began negotiations toward majority rule.

Apartheid officially ended in 1991, and three years later, South Africans elected a new government. Some feared a racial bloodbath when white rule ended, with blacks taking revenge for past injustices. Instead, South Africans embraced their new political power, with nearly 90 percent of those eligible casting ballots. Mandela was elected President.

Since then, South Africa has held four national elections and has enjoyed a functioning judicial system. South Africa boasts the continent's largest economy and the 17th-largest stock exchange in the world. It has an abundance of natural resources that it exports—including diamonds, gold, and platinum—and a modern infrastructure in much of the country. Considered the superpower of Africa, South Africa regularly sends troops for peacekeeping missions elsewhere on the continent.

AIDS, Crime, Struggling Schools

But South Africa also faces many challenges. Almost a quarter of its workforce is unemployed. While its economy is the envy of most of the continent, about half of South Africans still live in poverty, many in overcrowded townships with poor services. One out of every seven adults is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 2007 alone, some 350,000 South Africans died of AIDS. These deaths have led to a spike in the number of orphans left behind.

The country also suffers from high rates of violent crime, with many middle- and upper-class South Africans of all races barricading themselves in heavily protected homes or gated communities. But the problem that may pose the greatest challenge to South Africa's future is its education system.

Despite sharp increases in education spending since apartheid ended, South African children consistently score at or near the bottom on international achievement tests, even measured against far poorer African countries. This bodes ill for South Africa's ability to compete in a globalized economy.

South Africa's schools are still struggling with the legacy of the apartheid era, when the government established a separate "Bantu" education system that aimed to make blacks subservient laborers. The word "Bantu," which refers to a large group of native tribes in southern Africa, was used to mean "blacks" under apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister who was one of the architects of apartheid in the 1940s, said a Bantu must not be subjected to an education that shows him "the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze."

Most teachers in South Africa's schools today got inferior educations under the Bantu system, which has made it harder for them to teach the next generation, analysts say. Even President Jacob Zuma has admitted the country's education policies "have not essentially led to the delivery of quality education for the poorest of the poor."

Last year, a South African nonprofit group gave students in Khayelitsha disposable cameras to document problems in their schools. They returned with shots of leaking roofs, cracked desks, and groups of students crowded around a single textbook.

One image—of a bank of windowpanes at a high school, all shattered—got the most attention. Some 500 windows at the school had been broken for years, leaving the students shivering in winter. A fundraising campaign fueled by public outrage has resulted in new windows.

The achievement gap between black and white students in South Africa is enormous. In the province of Western Cape, only 2 out of 1,000 sixth-graders in predominantly black schools performed at grade level on a math test in 2005, compared with 2 out of 3 children in schools once reserved for whites that are now integrated, but generally in more affluent neighborhoods.

Marching for Libraries

Teachers say children get to high school not knowing their multiplication tables. "If you say 3 times 3, they will say 6," says Patrine Makhele, a math teacher at Kwamfundo high school.

In September, thousands of students marched to Cape Town's City Hall, demanding school libraries and librarians. Asanda Sparks, a ninth-grader from Kraaifontein Township, said she has been hoping for a library in her school since she was robbed as she walked to the public library.

Nina Hoffman was among the dozens of white students who joined the march from one of the country's formerly all-white suburban high schools, Westerford, which can afford a well-stocked library because parents pay annual fees of $2,200 per child.

"Coming to a march like this, I realize even more how privileged we are and how much I take for granted," she says.

Back at Kwamfundo high school in Khayelitsha—which is home to more than 500,000 working-class people, many of them unemployed—students still say they believe in education to bring a better life.

Consider how students reacted one day last fall after they realized their science teacher was absent. When two students rose to lead a review session on evolution, murmuring voices and shuffling papers fell silent.

"List two environmental factors which make it possible for the vertebrates to move onto land," said Blondie Mangco, 17, whose mother died of AIDS last year. She has barely passing grades in science, but she believes she can raise them to A's or B's, get into a university, and become a doctor or a biomedical scientist.

These are the kind of dreams South Africa must turn into reality if the country is going to prosper.

"It's an absolute priority for South Africa to fix and make education what it should be," says David Bell, a South African and a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. "But it's a long, tough process."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)