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South Africa's 'Fast Forward'

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In March, front-page headlines again reported new violence from South Africa, this time in the independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. An armed caravan of thousands of white extremists had been routed by police and army troops as they rode through the town of Mmbatho. As I put down the paper, I remembered the main road into town, where several colleagues and I had gotten lost in a rental car from the airport, just a few short months before.

Together with representatives of the BBC, Radio Netherlands, and South African educational groups, I was part of a team of educators and media specialists visiting schools, universities, and community organizations in South Africa, under the aegis of the Electronic Media in Education Forum and the South Africa Institute for Distance Education in Johannesburg. The architects of apartheid originally had designated these black homelands in areas where the land was barren and parched. They did not foresee that this homeland government would find rich platinum mines under the soil and would open a thriving casino business. The schools and universities in Mmbatho are modern and well-equipped, with science labs, libraries, and media equipment.

However, 45 minutes outside of town, where the land is indeed barely arable, we visited a school without electricity where students have trouble getting water from pumps, after walking an hour in bare feet to get there. Teachers and students sometimes faint in the heat of the summer. These schools were involved in an experiment to use French-built television sets powered by solar panels to receive instructional TV, emphasizing science, geography, and mathematics. This project, like so many technology projects here, had encountered problems with theft and equipment breakdowns.

While South Africa struggles toward its first democratic election this week and ratifies the astounding ascension of Nelson Mandela to its presidency, the nation is also wrestling with the future of its educational system. In a country of 40 million, where blacks make up 75 percent of the population and whites make up 15 percent, the white-run educational system has spent six times as much on white students as on blacks. Under apartheid, a high-quality education was a white privilege deliberately and perniciously denied to blacks.

During the decades of resistance to apartheid, schools became political battlegrounds. Student leaders played key roles in the opposition to the government. As a teenager, one black woman on our project team had been forced to leave the country on foot to avoid being jailed. She had organized a student boycott against her school administration's refusal to provide textbooks the students' families had paid for. Another educator on our team pointed to the bare spots on his temples, where the police had placed electrodes during his torture. He now directs adult-literacy projects throughout the country.

Post-apartheid South Africa faces an education crisis of enormous proportions. More than 1.5 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 do not attend school. Most black children drop out of school after about four years. Some three million more teenagers have not attended high school, and more than 10 million adults--between 50 percent and 60 percent--are illiterate. Many teachers themselves have not finished high school.

In the midst of this crisis, the electronic media--TV, radio, video- and audiocassettes--are viewed as engines for accelerating the provision of high-quality materials for teacher education as well as student instruction. Television penetration is greater than 95 percent among the relatively affluent white population. However, only about 35 percent of blacks have TV sets, many living in townships and squatter settlements without electricity. For the near term in those areas, communal television sets and V.C.R.'s, common in many developing countries, will allow group viewing in schools, workplaces, churches, community centers, and libraries. While electrification projects proceed, small, community-based radio stations are expected to play a key role in conveying critical news, health, and literacy information.

Providing all children with 10 years of free public education is a cornerstone of the education policies proposed by Mr. Mandela's African National Congress. Curriculum materials, professional development, and support services will be needed in priority areas of early-childhood education, K-12 instruction (especially science and mathematics), and adult basic literacy. Our project team recommended not only the design of new video, audio, and print materials, but also networks of trained education "extension agents'' to provide ongoing technical assistance and support throughout the country.

John Samuel, the African National Congress's head of education, is expected to play a central role in a new National Education Council. He said this to our team: "We are interested in innovative and creative ways of delivering education. We can't rely on schools and the classroom, but must look to the role of the media, since we have the infrastructure.'' Sounding current themes in this country, he added, "One word describes the student we want to produce: curiosity. We need workers who can think and change. We need to integrate education and training, so that the workplace becomes a major place of learning. We're only 300 weeks short of the 21st century!''

The "infrastructure'' Mr. Samuel referred to includes excellent highways, railroads, and telephone services, modern universities, and a well-educated pool of talent which can provide educational leadership. Many have dedicated their lives to counteracting government repression through work in nongovernmental organizations whose educational materials and training projects have often been funded by foreign governments and foundations.

The infrastructure also includes the white-run South African Broadcasting Corporation, which operates three national TV channels and 22 radio stations, broadcasting in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and other languages. With an annual budget of close to $400 million, it is the most sophisticated broadcasting organization on the continent, with substantial resources for producing and distributing programming for both formal and informal education. But although termed a "public broadcaster,'' it currently relies heavily on advertising for 72 percent of its income. Its prime-time schedule includes some American commercial-TV favorites, such as "Who's the Boss,'' "Melrose Place,'' and "Knots Landing.''

But change is coming to the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Last fall, for the first time, the SABC board selected a black as its chairman, an educator named Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. The newly constituted SABC board, which includes a number of leading educators, has signaled its interest in using the public-broadcasting corporation's resources to confront the educational crisis. As the new chairman bluntly told our project: "I am interested in the total transformation of electronic media to serve democratic ends, in production, transmission, and receiving structures.'' Proposals include selling off its commercial media properties to fund new educational channels, devoting regular airtime to instructional broadcasts, and hiring and training new cadres of black and Indian educational-media producers and researchers.

It is early in the game to predict how far and how fast reforms in education and the media will come to South Africa. But then, South Africa is a country on fast-forward. Only four years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of a prison off the coast of Cape Town after 27 years as an inmate. This month, President Mandela throws out the first ball in an entirely new ballgame.

Milton Chen directs educational services at the Public Broadcasting Service station KQED in San Francisco and is the author of a forthcoming book for parents and educators, The Smart Parent's Guide to Kids' TV.

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