South Africa's new school oath revives the divisions of apartheid

It is only 67 words long but has prompted one of the biggest and most divisive public debates in modern South Africa since the proposed change of flag in 1994.

Ever since President Thabo Mbeki outlined plans for a school oath for pupils in his State of the Nation address three weeks ago, the country's airwaves and newspapers have been filled by opposing views.

Some say the pledge places guilt on white schoolchildren and smacks of totalitarianism, while supporters claim the three sentences engender national pride and a clearer identity for the Rainbow Nation. Academics and linguistic experts say it is too clumsy.

In his address, Mr Mbeki said: "We should develop an oath that will be recited by learners in their morning school assemblies, as well as a youth pledge extolling the virtues of humane conduct and human solidarity."

Five days later his Education minister, Naledi Pandor, revealed the the pledge, which reads: "We the youth of South Africa, recognising the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom. We will respect and protect the dignity of each person, and stand up for justice. We sincerely declare that we shall uphold the rights and values of our constitution and promise to act in accordance with the duties and responsibilities that flow from these rights."

She has said that she cannot "imagine any parent objecting" to the pledge and is understood to be privately surprised by the reaction to the plans. She has already had to "clarify" to Parliament that under current proposals the oath will not be forced on schools.

Ms Pandor has not said how often and what ages of children will have to say it, or whether it will be in assembly or beneath a flag.

All those issues will be decided by the cabinet once the consultation process finishes on 20 March, said Granville Whittle, director of race and values at the Department of Education (DoE). "We have received a large correspondence on this subject already. The only time when I can think that we've had as many letters was when we discussed proposals for a new flag in 1994-95," he said.

One group bitterly opposed to the plans is the right-wing Freedom Front Plus party. Its leader, Dr Pieter Mulder, said the proposals were "shocking".

He said: "It's indoctrination and has all the hallmarks of the old Soviet Union, where most of the ANC leaders looked to. It's about the past and not the future and will not promote nation-building. The first line will indoctrinate Afrikaaner children with a permanent guilt complex.

He added: "We find it shocking that while the government has phased out compulsory religious education, scripture reading and prayers at public schools, it now wants to expose those same children to their twisted ideology."

While not as abrasive, former president FW de Klerk last week also criticised the pledge, saying it would make white children "morally inferior".

He added: "A school pledge is being proposed that would consign those children whose parents and grandparents were not part of the revolutionary movements to perpetual moral inferiority – because no mention is made of the essential contribution they made to the creation of the new society."

The idea does have its backers, including the National Association of School Governing Bodies, the opposition Democratic Alliance, the Afrikaans teaching union Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie and the National Youth Commission (NYC) – albeit with some wording changes.

The NYC's chair, Nomi Nkondlo, said: "Recognising that our country emerged from an uneven, divided past we view the pledge as a fitting legacy that should remind young people at all times that the right to education they currently enjoy is as a result of sacrifices made by preceded generations."

Mr Whittle said it was too early to break down the numbers for and against, or those who support a pledge but with different wording.

"Clearly, the government thinks this is a good idea but they wanted to test the water on public opinion," he said. "We have had a mixed reaction to it, but it seems a lot of young people support it. They seem to want a clear identity for South Africa and to cement the different cultures."

Newspaper editorials have also been divided. Welcoming the pledge, the daily Star wrote: "Just as no farmer would plant a young sapling in the eye of the storm, no nation as young as ours can be expected to overcome its growing pains without some help." However, Business Day commended the idea but said the wording had failed. "The text contains much about the injustices of the past but little about what's important now," the paper said. "This is a troubled and fragmented society and we could do with some unifying values and rituals. But this pledge doesn't quite make the grade."