A Tale of Three Schools

July 2, 2009

For all of the challenges facing tertiary educators, the grim reality is that excellence in the public secondary school system has largely collapsed in South Africa. We have seen just a small cross-section of high schools, but one has to look hard for encouraging trends in township schools—a situation that is surely multiplied by the thousands across this nation. Yes, there are some excellent schools in South Africa. They are almost all private, expensive, mostly white in leafy suburbs with expansive campuses, well-equipped libraries and computer labs, and excellent sports facilities. Epworth School in the Scottsville suburb of Pietermaritzburg would be a good example of this type of school.

These schools are not exclusively the domain of white students. There are many Indian and black students at schools like Epworth as well. The rapidly growing Indian and black middle class who can afford private schools like Epworth now represent a significant future enrollment for such schools.

Less than 10 km away from Epworth lies the townships of Mpumalelo and Edendale. I have already written about the student strike at the high school in Mpumalelo. Kristin had an opportunity to visit the school recently and the sights, sounds and smells of the school are beyond description. A third of the school was put to the torch by the students and nearly every textbook was burned in the process.mpumalelo fire What is left can only be described as a shambles. Broken windows and desks,mpumalelo window garbage, no electricity and running water (except for one continually running tap), drop toilets that have never been emptied,mpumalelo toilet rooms without doors, no sports field and the list goes on. (To see more pictures, visit our Picassa slideshow.) This is the justification given by the student leaders as to why they burned down the building. Would the ministers of education send their children to such a school?

Down the road a few kilometers away in Edendale are several high schools. Nyonithwele High School is across the street from Bonginkosi.nyonithweleNyonithwele was built in 1995, so it is a relatively new school. It is built on a large tract of land, but most of the land is unused because it cannot be adequately patrolled, so there is not a sports field on the grounds of the school. There is no electricity in the buildings because the light fixtures and receptacles were stolen when the building was under construction. Many of the windows are broken. There is no heat or air conditioning. There is not a piece of science lab equipment to be found. There are almost 1000 students at the school.

Further down the road is Edendale Technical School. It is considered the best public school in Edendale. There are 1400 students enrolled, and there are many learners that are turned away each year due to lack of space. They have sports facilities and electricity. They have a hard-working and strict principal and a team of dedicated teachers. They have a librarian who has scraped together the necessary funds to have a building renovated to create a library at ETS. Now the challenge is getting some books.edendale library1 They have worked with the U.S. Consulate in Durban to set up an “American Corner” which had books donated by the embassy. I was honored to be part of these donations and wished that I had one hundred more boxes.edendale library4 There are four computers for 1400 students,edendale library2 but they have a man with a vision for a future. He has started a book club and has been encouraging students to read a common book together, write their own plays based on the book, and discuss the book together. They need fiction books.edendale library5 They need life science books.edendale library3 They need any kind of book. They have a dedicated staff who are trying to make lemonade out of lemons. The math teacher meekly notes that the matric pass rate in math is about 65%. Each year he has several students pass with distinction.

Not good enough, he says. He is working on improving it. The pass rate of the other three high schools in Edendale are 6, 8 and 11%. While 65% may not be ideal, his school is an order of magnitude higher than the other local schools. Still no lab equipment, no computers, students with a 50 – 70% HIV infection rate, no library books, yet here is a story of hope that hard working folks with the right administration can make a difference—a model of possibility.


There are no easy solutions. Township high schools range from very challenging to dreadful. Admittedly, this is a small cross-section, but I have a suspicion that these are typical of black township schools across South Africa. This is a subject not discussed. In fact it is not even allowed to be discussed. Teachers and administrators are threatened with being fired by the Department of Education if they go to the press to publicize the plight of their schools. No one wants to lose their job in a country with over 30% unemployment. No one wants to lose their government post when their next post will be decided by the same officials. No one will risk it. That is why there are no names to be found in this story. An investigative news show like Sixty Minutes or 48 Hours could have a field day on the secondary education system in South Africa.

The question that begs to be asked is “Why?” Why in a country that is ranked # 32 in GDP are there thousands of schools like these? Why do public high schools still not have running water and electricity when the entire surrounding community has both? It could not cost more than R100,000 ($12,000) to replace the electrical receptacles and lights that were stolen in 1995 at Nyonithwele. 1995! What percentage of students who are educated in these schools have any chance at success later in life?

The human capital that is being wasted in South Africa is astounding. There could be hundreds or thousands of the next writers, musicians, artists, scientists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, politicians, and athletes. What is being produced is another generation of people without hope–aimlessly wandering the streets of townships across South Africa in search of something, anything. Hoping to find a job or at least get enough rands for taxi, food and a beer at the local sheebeen. The return on investment is dismal. Even the “successful” students leaving the secondary school system have been set up—given an opportunity to fail. Supposedly there is an 18% matric exemption rate. Thus, 80% of the students are currently fated to a future without hope for a tertiary education. It is estimated that 40% of the 18 – 24 year olds have no job and are not enrolled in school–a national tragedy. The solution proposed is to continue to pass these students through the system—kick the can further down the road, but eventually hope and opportunity will run firmly into reality.

This is a bottomless pit. It is going to take some real political courage to admit what any even moderately observant person who is willing to be honest can see—the secondary school system is not working and the current trends in education are not positive. Change is not going to come rapidly and will be painful. There are a lot of school administrators who do not have the right personality or vision for the difficult days ahead. There are too many underqualified and underperforming teachers who need to be replaced. The tertiary education system needs to develop a cadre of outstanding future teachers with a passion for teaching. Administrators need to be given the green light to expel problem students which they currently do not have the authority to do, and the list goes on.

Does this iron resolve and focus exist in South Africa to address these problems? The country’s future hangs on the answer to this question.


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