Headmaster Kenneth Mabuza takes a deep breath as he reels off some of the problems facing students at Ibhongo High School, in the heart of South Africa’s biggest township Soweto.
“Some learners stay in shacks on their own, some children have nothing to eat, some stay with a parent that is very sick because of AIDS. . . . Three or four out of 10 girls get pregnant and drop (out of) school,” says Mabuza.
“It’s not that they are not willing to learn, but because of social and health reasons, they lose the interest to learn,” adds the principal, visibly tired only a few days after the start of the new school year.
This year, only a third of Ibhongo’s students passed their final matriculation exams against a national average of 65 percent.
While the reluctance of parents to send their children to Ibhongo means it has escaped the problem of overcrowding, those who do attend find themselves taught in run-down buildings, scrawled with graffiti and littered with broken windows.
Despite South Africa’s status as the continent’s largest economy, such tales of social deprivation are common in a country where 43 percent of the population live below the poverty line, mainly in rural areas or townships such as Soweto which is on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
“Education in South Africa is shown to be in crisis. Seventy percent of our schools are not functioning,” says Graeme Bloch, a specialist in education from the Development Bank of Southern Africa.
“It’s not a crisis in that it is falling apart, but kids who are going to school are not learning anything. It doesn’t provide skills to our fast-growing economy and it reinforces the divisions of the past.”
During whites-only apartheid rule, the funding allocated to schools varied hugely between different ethnic groups.
Schools catering for black children always received far less than those for whites, further entrenching the policy of inequality.
Following the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, the country’s first black president Nelson Mandela made education the number one priority of his new administration and the education ministry’s budget now accounts for around 20 percent of the overall national total.
“In terms of resources, we put a lot, but it’s not enough,” Bloch added.
According to Bloch, nearly 17 percent of schools still have no electricity and 61 percent have only rudimentary sanitation.
Adding to the problems is a major shortage of teachers, with unions arguing that up to 30,000 extra tutors are needed in the classroom.
At primary school level, some classes have more than 100 pupils.
Mabuza says that the schools struggle to attract teachers to what he acknowledges is a poorly paid profession.
“The teachers get 8,000 rand a month (800 euros, 1,200 dollars) before deductions, before they pay their housing and their pension.
“It’s not paying, there is no incentive, nothing attracts the young people into the profession.”
According to Education Minister Naledi Pandor, many of the teachers who are in place lack leadership skills and are just happy to pick up their pay cheques.
Pandor also said that the system under which teacher assessments are carried out by their colleagues often led people to hold back criticism.
“Peers tend to review each other positively, even if there is underperformance,” she said during a recent surprise inspection of Ibhongo.
Sipho Mkhulise, director of education for the Soweto district, blames the poor academic record of black students in part on the legacy of apartheid but says the attitude of teachers also needs to change.
“There is still an element of defiance today. Before, the teachers wanted to bring down apartheid, today the attitude has not changed.”
In a country which has a total of 11 official languages, the use of English in all classes from the age of 10 towards is another contributing factor towards inequality.
Zwelinge Mavimbela, a final-year student at Ibhongo, says he has had trouble keeping up with his teacher.
“The teachers are good but there is a problem when it comes to languages,” he said.
“When I ask a question in Zulu to the math teacher, a venda, she doesn’t understand and makes me repeat it in English. I don’t understand maths in English.”
A recent study of 12-13 year-old pupils in the Western Cape province found that only five percent of youngsters from townships had reached the required reading levels, against 85 percent for the old white suburbs.
When the results of the matriculation exams came out just after Christmas, the local paper in Johannesburg published mugshots of all the pupils who had passed with distinction: three-quarters were white.