CAPE TOWN — Of all the fronts on which the battle for South Africa is being fought, black education currently is the most explosive. While government has been greatly expanding black high-school education since the early 1970s, the economy has been unable to generate a sufficient number of jobs--only about half the number needed. A most volatile mix has been created in the schools. Studies show that the higher the educational standards, the more radical the black demands become.
Blacks understandably blame the segregated education system for their plight. Increasingly they also are objecting to the capitalist system. The students' proposed alternative is "a people's education," controlled by the blacks and geared to preparing them for a socialist, post-apartheid society.
Yet President Pieter W. Botha's government is falling further behind the demands of the situation. The government's most fundamental mistake is its assumption that once the African National Congress' influence is removed, the seething unrest will subside and black political leaders will come forward to participate in the new government structures being devised.
The main threat to government and the capitalist system in South Africa is in fact not an ANC takeover of the black townships, but a collapse of the general socialization process of blacks. Some of South Africa's most respected educators fear that the country already is faced with an irreversible breakdown in its black education system.
Last year the system was crippled by widespread school boycotts in most of the metropolitan centers. Recently the department responsible for black education announced that about 300,000 pupils--10% of the total student population--have been barred from school for failing to re-register before the government deadline. Behind this lies a much more serious process of the de-schooling of blacks.
The level of formal education for blacks in the main metropolitan centers is deteriorating steadily. In 1985, for example, only 7% of high-school seniors in Soweto qualified for university entry. This is about three times lower than the percentage for the dependent "homelands."
Young blacks now increasingly take serious issue with white standards and systems of merit. "Pass one, pass all" has become a new slogan in the schools. In many schools the youths' rejection of the white ruling class' skimming of gifted blacks is so profound that they are willing to block any upward educational mobility that would promote the emergence of a privileged black elite.
At the same time there has been a deepening of anti-capitalist sentiment in black schools throughout the country. Children are linking the education struggle with the broader black struggle in society. As a widely circulated student pamphlet said: "We realize now that education can either be an instrument of capitalist domination or of liberation. We must turn our schools into centers of liberation." Increasingly the struggle is seen as one that needs to be linked to the black workers' battle for better working and living conditions.
It is with this potential alliance of students and workers, rather than an ANC in exile, that government and big business in South Africa will have to contend.
The official response to the student unrest has been the big stick: the state of emergency, the closing of some schools, the withdrawal of government recognition of many student councils and parent-teacher organizations. The message is clear: The government provides education--take it on our terms, or leave it.
This strategy will produce mixed results. Closing black schools means a serious loss of the students' organizational base. Even the ANC is thought to be opposed to school boycotts because they deflect blacks from the goals of a "people's education." What South Africa's actions cannot achieve is restoration of a learning environment in black schools--something that will steadily erode the capacity of society to impose its norms and of the economy to improve its dismal rate of labor productivity.
Thus some sectors of the business community find attractive the idea of the ANC as a coalition government partner, in part because of the group's position on education. Heribert Adam, an astute analyst of South African society, writes in his new book, "South Africa Without Apartheid": "Only the widely legitimate mass organization can re-socialize youth in South Africa, who increasingly have been thriving on anarchy. Without such disciplining influence, a capitalist work ethic would be unlikely to prevail."
Botha's refusal to talk to the ANC makes sense only if some other credible mass-based organization is available to help the state restabilize society and provide the conditions for renewed capitalist growth. With the exception of Natal Province, the base of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's 1.3-million-member Inkatha movement, none of the other areas in the country seem to have sufficiently cohesive political organizations to bring blacks together in the pursuit of common goals.