An early lesson in South Africa's despair: After a year away, Benjamin Pogrund returns to Johannesburg and sees evidence of anarchy and decay in a land still dominated by the effects of more than 40 years of apartheid

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The Independent Online
TEARS running down her face, the girl begged: 'Please sir, let me stay at school until the end of today.' 'No,' was the reply. 'Go home and tell your parents you can't come back until they pay your fees.' The girl walked away, to join 400 other pupils also ordered home that morning at Pace College in Soweto. That was out of an enrolment of 600.

The stern voice belonged to the headmaster, Wilkie Kambule, a legendary teacher in black education. 'What can I do?' he kept saying. 'We had 10,000 rand ( pounds 2,000) in the bank at the start of the month. At the end of the month I must pay a wages bill for the teachers of R95,000. This is a private college. Unless parents pay the R2,000 a year fee, we must close down.'

If Pace were to shut, its loss would seem to count for little. Its 600 pupils are a drop in the ocean: Soweto has 65,000 black high-school students, mainly at state schools. But that is a deceptive statistic because only some 1,000 - Pace's 600 among them - regularly attend school, says Mr Kambule.

For many of Soweto's young people, education is in fits and starts, interrupted by taking part in demonstrations and protests (willingly or not), usually against the government and sometimes against their teachers.

Education for blacks is not compulsory so economic and family problems also contribute to the number of drop- outs. Soweto's pass-rate for school- leavers (roughly between British GCSE and A-levels) reflects the anarchy and low standards in teaching and facilities: 36 per cent last year, compared with 97 per cent in white schools (Pace achieved 84 per cent).

Black education has been a disaster area for decades. The Afrikaner Nationalists enforced segregated and inferior education. Blacks have added to the decline by using schoolchildren in the front line in ghetto protests. What is new are the multiplying effects of under-education and several generations of drop-outs with no training and no prospect of working.

Soweto has always been violent, but there is now a distinct difference in the atmosphere. People speak with a terrible resignation about the fragility of their lives: they fear both criminal and political violence. So they might: in the first 11 months of this year, nearly 300 attacks on train passengers in the Johannesburg area were recorded; 280 were fatal.

The business centre of Johannesburg has also for long been known as a dangerous place. But here too it has gone over the edge: do not stop at red traffic lights if you see anyone suspicious hanging around, is said to be the advice from the police. They have now lost control. In the luxurious white suburbs, garden walls grow higher, and razor- wire toppings flourish. Everyone has a story to tell of murder, rape or robbery. And yet, as a bizarre counterpoint, during the daylight hours there is a surface appearance of traditional normality: gangs of black workers keep the streets in top condition, and flower beds on the pavements are immaculate. The contrast with the deprivation of Soweto is one of the unchanged facts of South African life.

That apart, the evidence of creeping anarchy, of the disintegration of South Africa, is plain to see. A doctor speaks of 'atrocious' conditions in public hospitals. He says that the numbers of people being treated for violence outweighs those who are ill.

The economy is a mess: the effects of years-long plundering by whites to ensure their comfort and privilege and the distortions of apartheid in over-paying whites and under-training blacks have caught up with a vengeance. There is simply not enough money to pay for all that has to be done to overcome the deficiencies, whether in health, education, pensions or whatever.

Most basic of all is the despair which stretches across population groups. A year ago, there was still a momentum of belief; the earlier euphoria created in 1990 by the release of Nelson Mandela from jail and the unbanning of anti- apartheid movements, had evaporated, but there was still a well of hope. That has gone. Now, the despair among white professionals and business people easily deteriorates into panic-stricken talk: the desire to emigrate is strong.

While confidence in the future among whites has sunk, what has only partially changed is their racial arrogance. Some whites are fighting a rearguard action against majority rule by stoking up malignant forces, whether murder squads or undercover funding of the Inkatha Zulu movement. The aim is division and unrest so that as much of white power as possible might be maintained and African National Congress strength weakened.

But desperation about the state of the country might finally be working as the catalyst for progress. The ANC, struggling to transform itself from a populist movement into an efficient modern political party, has come round to acknowledging that neither it nor the government can be totally in control; hence its offer of 'sunset clauses', in which whites will enjoy some built-in privileges and power after the formal ending of white rule.

The offer is both realistic and generous, and the ANC might yet have trouble in selling it to the militants among its supporters. The immediate problem, though, is the reaction from whites: some in the cabinet, mainly the younger generation, are getting to the point of being willing to enter into partnership with the ANC through a government of national unity; they see the white game is up. But others, chiefly the older generation of leaders, are holding out.

And yet, because this is South Africa, and nothing is ever entirely what it seems, the impression of doom is leavened by the memory of a few minutes on a South African Airways aircraft taxiing for take-off at Durban airport. One of the stewards, a black man, moved down the aisle checking seatbelts, stopping by a white girl of about five. He spoke to her in English, asking if she was all right; she replied in Afrikaans and he switched to her language. He patted her on the head and joked with her and she laughed with him. Her parents watched, relaxed and smiling.

It was an ordinary human contact that, given what is happening in South Africa, should not be possible. Contradicting everything, the same easy relationship across colour lines can be seen time after time. That is where the real hope for the future lies.