For 16 years, Themba was proud to be a teacher in South Africa but a wave of violence at her school has proven so nerve-wracking that she may leave the profession.
“I feel like a security guard, not a teacher,” said Themba, who requested anonymity. “Some mornings I don’t bother getting out of bed. Students are out of control and parents do not care. So I ask myself, what am I here to do?”
The school where she works is in Sebokeng, a black township south of Johannesburg. It has become a recruitment base for gangs and a haven for drug pushers. The space seems as grim as during apartheid: smashed windows, splintered wooden desks and an empty computer lab. The only addition is the electric fence that now surrounds the grounds.
In these conditions, almost 75 percent of students were forced to repeat a grade after failing last year’s matriculation exams, which test basic comprehension and are mandatory for university admittance.
After 13 years of democracy, the country’s education system is still struggling to erase historical inequalities.
The class divide has become as noticeable as the changing racial divide. While pupils from black and white middleclass families in formerly white urban areas are afforded a decent education, the majority of black children are still stuck with substandard education in the townships and rural areas.
Even though the country’s laws promise free education, schools have continued to charge poor parents fees. South Africa, the regional economic giant, was ironically running the risk of being the only country in Southern Africa to miss the Millennium Development Goal of improving access to primary education by 2015.
World Bank figures indicated that primary school enrolment rates for South Africa decreased from 92 percent in 1998 to 89 percent in 2004. The government hurriedly introduced a system of ‘no fees’ schools to make education accessible for the bottom half of the population. This has led to some improvement in enrolment figures.
“Universal primary education by 2015 is genuinely achievable,” said David Archer, head of education at the international nongovernmental organisation ActionAid. “But there needs to be a significant change in effectiveness, better management and better use of funding.”
Increased numbers have not been matched by improvements to the quality of education. South Africa’s nongovernmental Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) concluded in a recent study that 80 percent of schools offer education “of such poor quality that they constitute a very significant obstacle to social and economic development”.
Experts blame the pitiful standard of education on a host of factors. Violence including rape is prevalent at schools. Grinding poverty and HIV/AIDS have added to the classroom woes. HIV/AIDS affects students and teachers alike in a country which has 5.5 million HIV-positive people in a population of 48 million.
Meanwhile, high levels of stress and low wages are driving scores of teachers-like Themba-from the profession. There are not enough new recruits to fill the widening gap, according to the IJR.
Some people argue that the poor state of schooling is not primarily a money problem. South Africa spends about six percent of its GDP on education, a figure that equals that of rich countries.
Jonathan Jansen, dean of education at Pretoria University, applauds the governing African National Congress for more than doubling its education budget since 1994. But he also criticizes the lingering “two-school system”.
“Black schools are in serious trouble and there is little in policy or planning that suggests that this national pattern of a two-school system is about to be disturbed,” he recently wrote in a South African newspaper.
Some say the heart of the problem is bad management while others blame teachers for not knowing the basic curriculum used in schools or for lacking the motivation to do their jobs.
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) says it is unfair to find fault with overworked teachers who are given little support to implement a curriculum that keeps changing. Teachers also feel buried under a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork.
“We need better training and to get education authorities to start boosting morale,” Jon Lewis, spokesperson for SADTU, said.
Education Minister Naledi Pandor has publicly lamented that the current skills shortage could affect future labour productivity and throw South Africa off the path to greater prosperity.
In response, she has announced that under-performing institutions that cannot reverse the rot will be shut down. To address the safety issue, the government may equip state-run schools with more crime-fighting tools, including cameras and other security equipment.
Students and parents are fed up with the poor conditions too. “I can say now I am going to school, but maybe three teachers will show up for six periods,” said Nokulunga, 20, a single mother who attends a secondary school in Orange Farm township near Johannesburg.
“If you come to play you can. If you want to learn then it is up to you as the student,” said Nokulunga, who declined to give her surname.
Mbongeni Tito said he pulled his 14-year-old son from school to work on the family farm to shield him from the bad influence of peers and to cut off the temptation to use drugs and stir trouble. “It got to the point where I made the decision that he is better off at home than in the classroom,” said Tito.