"There is no motivation any more," said the deputy principal, Kenneth Mangwedi, 59, shaking his head. A diploma on the wall proclaims Alex High as the school with the best pass rate in the huge Johannesburg township: 60 per cent. That was as recently as 1995.
Of all the areas the African National Congress government has tried to remedy in its first five years in power, education, on paper at least, has proved the biggest let-down. The more so because mass resistance to apartheid had its genesis in the 1976 Soweto schools' uprising.
Yet in the run-up to South Africa's second multi-race elections, on 2 June, schools are hardly mentioned. The ANC will be handed a landslide victory by voters who are still grateful for any education they can get. It took a recent television drama series, Yizo Yizo, to get a cross-section of people talking about the need for parental involvement in education and to highlight the dope-smoking, knife-pulling antics of very real playground characters with names such as "Papa Action" and "Zakes".
Mr Mangwedi, who teaches history and geography at Alex High, said: "We are not at the Yizo Yizo stage but standards have undoubtedly declined and there is a crisis of commitment and attitude." He blamed unemployment and shortages of books and furniture for the decline. Others blame poor standards of teaching, including bad time-keeping and even drinking in the classroom.Township schools have also been hit by a "brain drain". Mr Mangwedi said: "Our pass rate has been affected by the fact that the children of motivated parents, who are likely to pass their matric, are now being sent to schools in white areas."
Every day at 6am, Suzan Moeketsi puts her eight-year-old son, Thabo, on a minibus in Rockville, Soweto, to send him to Forest Hill Primary School in what was once an exclusively white suburb. Mrs Moeketsi dismissed the argument, used by many educators, that the stress of travel and the time it takes is damaging to children's ability to concentrate. Mrs Moeketsi said discipline was better, too: "Children know that a school is a school. They adhere to punctuality, respect teachers and schoolmates, and apply themselves."
Alex High, which is co- educational, has 44 staff for 1,454 pupils - a reasonable ratio by township standards. But a lack of classrooms sometimes leads to lessons attended by 55 pupils, said Mr Mangwedi. The deputy principal, who goes nowhere in the school without a cane in his hand, regrets the banning, by the government, of corporal punishment.
"You need some means of discipline. The parents want it because the pupils have contact with criminals and bring knives and guns to school." Mr Mangweni, who started at Alex High in 1968, hinted that South African township youths have never really known what it is to be a normal student.
"During the struggle years, education was terrible. There were uprisings and those children were more like revolutionaries than pupils. Of course we are grateful to them for changing South Africa but now we must try to settle down and build an education system within our new nation."
Levy Matlana, 43, who teaches history, geography and Tswana at Alex High, was a student during the riots of 1976. He said: "It is different teaching today's young people because they have freedom. We have to teach them the concept that freedom equals accountability and responsibility.
"They misinterpret freedom, take advantage of the lack of corporal punishment, come late to school and smoke dagga [marijuana]. There is also the problem that the government wants results. It does not want 23-year-olds who are still in school. So we are urged to push them through the system. Then they fail their exams and become one of these people, sitting in an office, who cannot express themselves properly."Reuse content