School disparities lay bare South Africa's inequality

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 27, 2011 

At the relatively well-off Pinehurst Primary School in Cape Town, students work in a large computer lab.

ANDY COLWELL/PENN STATE UNIVERSITY

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Row upon row of pine-green backpacks, hats and lunchboxes crowd the halls of Pinehurst Primary School, each stamped with the school's distinctive pinecone logo and sold in the store near the lobby.

Classes are held in the computer lab three or four times a week. Students can choose from art courses and music lessons. There's even a swimming pool.

But about 15 miles north, in the struggling black township of Dunoon, many students at Sophakama Primary School can't afford the required uniform — or even food to put in a lunch pail. The only computers are in the faculty lounge, which regularly has been broken into and looted.

This stark contrast between rich and poor is still visible in the schools of Cape Town, 17 years after the end of white apartheid rule.

Under the old, race-based system known as Bantu education, black and mixed-race South Africans weren't taught the same curriculum as the privileged whites, denied instruction in critical thinking skills and prepared only for low-wage, menial jobs.

With apartheid abolished, a generation of Bantu-educated parents and grandparents now look on as their children hold the right to an equal education. But instead of the school system being segregated by skin color, to a great degree it is now split by money.

South Africa spent 17.4 percent of its budget on education in 2009, a higher percentage than the U.S. But the end of apartheid hasn't eliminated the advantages enjoyed by many white schoolchildren, whose families have retained much of their wealth and are able to supplement government funding.

Sixty percent of the country's students attend no-fee or public schools like Sophakama — most of them in communities inhabited predominantly by blacks and mixed-race South Africans, known as "coloreds."

Even with 44 items on the school's "needs" list — including fans, heaters, white boards, overhead projectors and a school bus — Sabelo Makubalo, Sophakama's principal, recognizes that his students are better off than some other township schools.

With the installation of a new library — funded by an American pastor — students no longer have to travel the nearly six miles to a neighboring town to work on projects. Reading scores have gone up. In May 2010, the school was honored for improving results on sixth grade literacy tests, while only 38 percent of sixth-graders nationwide passed the exams.

"We are trying our best to not confine them," Makubalo said. "We are giving them life skills, reading and writing skills."

But in math, only 27 percent of sixth-graders nationwide passed numeracy testing in July 2010. South African pupils' math scores are consistently lower than Zimbabwe, Botswana and Kenya — all African countries that spend less on education than South Africa does.

Simpiwe Gxilishe, a seventh-grade math teacher at Sophakama, said that students usually advance to the next grade even if they haven't mastered the material. Two out of five pupils who take South Africa's version of the SAT will fail. Even if they make it to college, black South Africans have a high first-year drop out rate.

Gxilishe said that his students don't care that they are learning less than they could be.

"They don't know the subjects, they just do it for the sake of doing it," he said. "They know they will pass." Yvonne Mgedezi, a first-grade teacher, said that the biggest problem for students is their home environment. Many of their parents are young and uneducated, if not illiterate. Some parents make so little money that they can't afford the small fee needed to send their children to kindergarten.

"Those are the ones that give a big problem," Mgedezi said. "When they come (to first grade), they can't even hold a pen."

Experts contend that South Africa's education problems and high unemployment rate go hand-in-hand. Unemployment is estimated at 24 percent nationally, but it's much higher in the townships. Other problems affect township families, too, including gang wars and the AIDS epidemic.

"If the child has a problem at home, they can't perform well," Mgedezi said.

The situation is quite different at Pinehurst, where first-graders come in with "a great deal of knowledge," Deputy Principal Mark Cupido said. Children from the surrounding Pinelands area usually come from a "functional home," he added, and parents pay about 85 percent of the school's operating costs.

Many of the Cape Town area's better schools function as public-private hybrids. Cupido said that the school would have trouble paying teachers competitive salaries without that funding.

Cupido himself was educated under the Bantu system. He said that when he started at Pinehurst 10 years ago he had to work to gain white parents' respect and trust.

"In the beginning parents didn't want (their kids) in my class," he said. "Two years later they were asking to have their kids in my class."

Cupido said he is surprised when Pinehurst advertises teaching positions and they get very few colored and black applicants, even though the school has become well integrated since apartheid.

"They still think they're not worthy," he said.

All South African instructors must hold teaching degrees, but the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality — a consortium of provincial ministries of education — has found in that many lack basic subject knowledge.

"It's difficult to undo Bantu education because then you can only teach and produce what you know and what you have experienced," said Xolisa Guzula, an early literacy specialist for the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa at the University of Cape Town.

"If you've learned under Bantu education you've been taught not to be a thinker. Your education was impoverished so you can produce another impoverished product."

(Downey, a graduate of Penn State University, reported this story from Cape Town for a class in international journalism.)

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