South Africa: Rainbow Nation Pursues `Elusive Equity'

15 December 2004

Ten years after the fall of apartheid, many wonder whether South Africa's new government has the ability to keep its reforms afloat. With the belief that equity in society begins in the classroom, the post-apartheid government initiated a process of immediate and widespread reform.

In their new book, Elusive Equity, education experts Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd combine facts with experience to create a thoughtful analysis of South Africa's vigorous attempt at education reform. Although they applaud the government's efforts, they assert that educational equity remains elusive because of remaining problems with equal opportunity and educational adequacy.

With the assistance of a Fulbright Grant, the authors traveled to South Africa in early 2002 and spent six months researching the issue. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times and Ladd, professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, explained some of the key issues involved in an interview with AllAfrica's Naeesa Aziz.

What inspired you to do the research and what were your initial goals?

Ladd: What intrigued us about South Africa was the bold and major change that occurred in 1994. The country was moving away from the apartheid system, in which there were egregious disparities by race, toward a system that was much more racially equitable. We thought it would be interesting to look at that major transformation.

Fiske: The goal was to look at the issue of racial equity and see how much progress South Africa has managed to make, realizing that they started out with a system that was systematically unequal. They now have a government that has very different objectives [and] very democratic egalitarian goals. What we set out to do was figure out how far within the educational system they'd been able to move towards this new set of national goals.

What did children, officials and educators say about the reform process?

Fiske: Different people have lots of different thoughts. It was interesting because many of them had played big roles in the struggle against apartheid and a lot of them were able to interpret what they were doing in light of the fact that this was a long and victorious struggle. We found it interesting because they could give us a lot of background about how things have come about. I think people in South Africa are by and large optimistic and forward-looking. On the other hand, we also met people who were up against really difficult situations - especially the schools in the townships where the poverty is pervasive, where joblessness is high, where Aids is becoming a huge problem. You understood that the problems these people were dealing with are difficult.

In the book, you write that the country has missed an "important window of opportunity" in regards to education reform and that the new curriculum was "drawn up in haste." How do you think South Africa's government could have used that window more efficiently?

Ladd: During the period of 1994 to 1996, the country was very ambitious in its goals and set up a whole program of reconstruction and development, which would have included major investments in schools and school facilities. But with the introduction of the austere macro-economic policy known as GEAR in 1996, there just weren't the resources available for the country to make the types of investments that it would have liked to make, not only in education but in other areas as well. Now the hope is that by having an austere macro-economic policy, the country would become stabilized and this would free up resources in the future. It's a matter of hoping that the economy will take off.

One of the major problems that affects education and affects everything in the country is the high rates of unemployment and the associated extremely high rates of poverty. It's hard to provide an equitable education system and do all of the things a country would like to do with very high poverty rates.

Fiske: A good example of that would be the affects of the high unemployment rates on the willingness of students to persist in school. Students say, 'I see recent high school graduates who are hanging around and can't get jobs, so why should I work hard and finish my secondary education?' There's a real close relationship between unemployment and the willingness for students to persist in school.

Ladd: The other reason we talked about this possible loss of the window of opportunity is because in order to promote a more racially equitable system - we should emphasize that they've come a long way in many dimensions related to education - it's important for everybody to buy in to the education process. Our one concern is the further you move away from the euphoria of the 1994 elections and that early period, the more the middle class blacks will feel comfortable with their current situation and perhaps be less willing to invest in the education of the vast majority of Africans throughout the country who are poor and living in rural areas.

Are there gender issues associated with the reform process?

Ladd: We didn't spend a lot of time on gender issues in this book because girls do pretty well by a lot of the measures we were able to look at. Girls do well relative to boys in South Africa. The rates of those staying in school is quite the same. So South Africa, in many ways, is quite different from a number of sub-Saharan African countries and other developing countries.

Has there been a consensus on the primary language of instruction in schools? How have language differences impacted the reform process?

Ladd: It's a complicated issue with the 11 national languages in South Africa. As a result of the struggle against apartheid, English is usually used by many Africans as the language of economic opportunity. There's a real question over how language should be dealt with in the schools. Some people think it's important to just begin teaching English as soon as possible and that's the way to make sure Africans get access to the opportunities they need. That is happening in a number of places, but the problem is that a lot of the teachers of English do not have the sufficient background and training to do a good job. On the other side, people are saying it's better for students to have eight years of schooling in their mother tongue before they turn to English and [that] what the country needs to do is invest more in those indigenous languages.

Our view about this is that whichever way they go, it's going to take some money. Either way, we would encourage them to make up their mind as of which way to go and make those investments. Otherwise, we fear that many Africans will be disadvantaged as they go through school without good language training and then having to take these tests in English and being disadvantaged relative to their white peers.

Fiske: So even when you do have instruction in English there are some quality issues that go back to the capacity issues that are lingering on from apartheid. It's a problem that they're aware of, but that hasn't been seriously addressed. Recognize that the government - starting in 1994 - had a huge range of issues they had to deal with, not just education, but health and social welfare issues and poverty. We can't really fault them for not taking on the language issue, but at some point they have to deal with it seriously.

Ladd: We are talking about language in education policy and one of the challenges for them is that part of the broader language policy they need to grapple with is should all eleven languages remain as viable languages? They really would like to be a multi-cultural society. [It] turns out that that is a challenge.

What do you think some of the greatest achievements have been? How does the South African system rate internationally?

Ladd: If you look at international tests of students in the fourth grade or in higher grades for math and science, what you find is that South African students do very, very poorly relative to most other countries including countries in sub-Saharan Africa. That's a real problem for the country and that's the legacy of the apartheid education system, which -while it provided education for Africans and coloureds and Indians - didn't provide a high quality of education for those students. The country still has and will for many, many years have an undereducated workforce.

Fiske: Simply keeping the state education system together and moving forward after that huge transition was quite an accomplishment. It took real leadership. The overwhelming majority of South African students of all races are still in the state education system and if you think back to 1994, it may have gone in a very different direction. Whites and middle class blacks might very well have bolted from the system, but they didn't. They kept the state education system moving. They made a transition of leadership and kept everybody under one umbrella. That's a remarkable achievement.

The other thing related to that is [that] the quality schools they had before apartheid are still there and still of high quality. They're now racially integrated so there are no all white schools. There are quite a few good schools and they have middle class whites and middle class blacks in them. That said, they still have some huge inequality issues, but the very fact that they kept what was good about the old system while going about trying to reform it, was something for which they ought to receive great credit.

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