Education: Zimbabwe's lesson for South Africa: One of Nelson Mandela's immediate challenges will be to reverse a racist education policy, says Sarah Strickland

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The Independent Online
One of the many tasks facing the new South African government is the reversal of a policy that for years has denied education to millions of children.

Until now, education has been both compulsory and free for white, Indian and coloured children, but not for black Africans. While white schools were lavishly resourced, those for black children were starved of funds. Black parents were expected to pay not only for expensive uniforms but also for heating, books and additional teachers. Many simply could not afford the cost. The highly academic matriculation exam was passed by most white children and failed by most blacks, enabling 60 per cent of whites to go on to higher education compared with only 9 per cent of blacks.

Robert Mugabe, who is currently on a state visit to Britain, faced similar difficulties when he became the prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980. There was no free education, and only one or two schools offered sixth forms.

Many years before independence, an Englishwoman who was working as a teacher in Rhodesia had been struck by the lack of opportunities for black students to study A-levels. In 1967, Burke Benton and her mother, Grace, founded the Budiriro Trust in Britain to help students to complete their studies.

At first, Budiriro scholars had to come to Britain, despite the extra expense, because it was almost impossible to gain extra sixth-form places in schools in their own country. Eventually the trust began funding students in Rhodesia.

According to Anne Hastings, a long-time Budiriro trustee who taught in Zimbabwe for almost 20 years, the situation has improved enormously since independence. Mr Mugabe immediately abolished fees for primary education and within 10 years the number of children attending rose from 820,000 to 2.2 million. Secondary school numbers rose from 66,000 to more than 545,000, and the enrolment in A- level courses rose from 3,208 to 17,405. In 1989, the university had 7,699 students compared with 1,931 just before independence.

'The government can't work miracles, however,' Ms Hastings says. 'There is still no free secondary education available and a huge population explosion has meant many primary schools have reintroduced fees. There is still great poverty, especially in the rural areas.

'Many families manage to send their children to primary school and some years of secondary, but then can afford no more and the older ones have to leave and try to find work to support the family. I know the heartbreak that faces bright youngsters who have done well up to GCSE level when they are told they can go no further.'

Since the foundation of the Budiriro Trust, hundreds of students have been able to take A-levels and go on to higher education. One girl who benefited explained the difficulties her parents faced trying to educate seven of their 10 children. 'My father is a trained teacher who finds it almost impossible to meet all the demands of the family because nearly all of his salary is spent on school fees,' she says.

'All of us will be waiting at the end of the holidays in expectation for him to produce the school fees. It is very difficult to provide an adequate meal daily. Most mornings we have a plate of porridge and a cup of black tea and that will be enough for the whole day. I don't blame my father for the position he is in . . . I have learnt to be contented with the little that he gives me after hard work. There is not even a close relative who can offer help.'

One boy's headteacher wrote to the Budiriro Trust confirming that a student's parents could not pay his fees. 'They depend on selling the agricultural produce from their farm, which is not fertile. Their problem has been compounded by the drought and the fact that they now have another child in form one.'

Even modest school costs can exceed half the average peasant farmer's gross annual income and fees continue to escalate. The Budiriro Trust offers about four scholarships a year to students at 10 different boarding schools. There are still very few sixth-form places in state schools and many students from rural areas are forced to board because there are no schools near their homes. The scholarships cover about two-thirds of the fees and are awarded to able students in consultation with headteachers.

According to Elaine Unterhalter, director of Research on Education in Southern Africa at the Institute of Education, students in the new South Africa will not have to rely on British benefactors. Under government proposals, there will be 10 years of compulsory free education for everyone, including a year of nursery education, and a qualification that will be open to all. 'The plans are imaginative and in line with international thinking,' she says.

Ms Unterhalter believes the country's main problem will be finding room for an estimated extra 2 million schoolchildren. 'There has been enormous under-utilisation of white schools, so all the spare capacity will have to be put to use.'

Jenny Biggar, appeals co-ordinator, Budiriro Trust (0734 883222).

(Photograph omitted)