Johannesburg — SCHOOLCHILDREN who went on the rampage in Soweto on June 16 1976 were vastly more destructive than schoolteachers who have recently been assaulting pupils and other teachers for failing to join their strike.
But while the former deserved sympathy, mainly because their rampage was largely a spontaneous response to inexcusable shooting by the police, the latter deserve none.
Violence-prone teachers, their actions effectively condoned by some of their trade union leaders, are but the latest of numerous problems that have plagued public education over most of the 31 years since 1976.
Parental and teacher discipline were destroyed in many black schools in 1976 by a generation of militant youngsters, who argued that their parents and teachers had failed to stand up for themselves or their offspring against the apartheid system in general and Bantu Education in particular. There is little sign that discipline has been rebuilt. And in these politically correct days the ability of teachers to instil discipline has been hobbled.
Students in 1976 used school boycotts to highlight their grievances. But from 1980 onwards, boycotts became an important component of liberation strategy. Frequently during the 1980s, and into the 1990s as well, education took a back seat as students became freedom fighters. Apartheid in education, and then the policy of "no education before liberation", have helped to ensure that much of public schooling today is a wasteland from which but a handful of excellent schools stand out.
The picture is not entirely bleak. The proportion of Africans over the age of 20 without schooling has dropped over the past decade from 17% to 13%, and the proportion who have completed grade 12 has risen from 19% to 26%.
But other figures suggest how much further we still have to progress.
Only 30% of children -- of all races -- aged between five and six are attending early childhood development centres, so that most have little foundation on which subsequent schooling can be built.
Among pupils in Grade 6, the desired level of reading mastery stands at 20%. Of more than 1-million pupils who were in grade 10 in 2004, only a third passed matric at the end of last year, and only 8% passed matric well enough to qualify for university.
Other statistics show that we have made scant progress. There were fewer university-entrance matric passes among all races last year (85830) than in 1994 (88497).
Africans account for most of these matriculants. Their results have shown virtually no improvement in the past 12 years. In 1994, altogether 392434 Africans wrote their senior certificate exams, of whom 51016 (13%) obtained university-entrance passes. At the end of last year 442800 Africans wrote senior certificate exams, of whom 51180 (11,6%) obtained universityentrance passes.
These last sets of figures tell us that the number of Africans obtaining university-entrance matric certificates was not much higher after 13 years of democratic rule than after 40 years of Bantu Education (which came into operation in 1955). The lack of progress is all the more alarming if one remembers that discriminatory funding no longer applies.
Previously, African pupils received very much less public funding than pupils of other races. At one stage, in the early 1970s, average per capita spending on white pupils was 18 times the figure for African pupils.
Thereafter the National Party government began to narrow the gap as it recognised that economic growth necessitated much more spending on African education. By the time the African National Congress assumed power in 1994, much progress had been made in narrowing the gap, although it had not been eliminated. Today there is no longer any racial discrimination in how the state allocates resources to education.
Education Minister Naledi Pandor was therefore right when she said recently that the poor performance of the schooling system could not simply be dismissed as the legacy of apartheid. She was also right to observe that lack of resources is no longer a persuasive argument. Instead, she blamed the crisis in public education on other factors, including tolerance of neglectful parents and of mediocre officials and teachers. Violence on the part of pupils was also tolerated, she said.
"No education before liberation" was the slogan. Tragically, education after liberation leaves much to be desired. The minister's candour is a necessary first step on a road that winds uphill all the way, for she probably has a tougher job than anyone else in the government.
Kane-Berman is CE of the South African Institute of Race Relations.