KNOPPIESFONTEIN, South Africa (Reuters) - A tap with running water came when apartheid ended, electricity came 14 years later but the text books for each student have yet to arrive at Knoppiesfontein Primary Farm School.
It is one of nearly 2,600 remaining schools set up by white farmers to warehouse the offspring of farmhands until they could work the fields -- a glaring symbol of an apartheid-era education system designed to suppress the black majority.
Set in fields dusted orange from the clayish soil and among grazing cattle looking for sparse plants in the parched ground, the school also stands as a symbol of the 16 years of unfulfilled promises after the African National Congress took over, ending white minority rule.
The ANC called for drastic measures for farm schools but little changed in a decade of dithering, trapping another generation of black youth in a lifetime of rural poverty.
In local elections next year, President Jacob Zuma and his government could take hard hits if they fail to convince voters they are making headway on basic promises including Zuma’s top priority of better education.
“Even our toilets are very bad because we are still using the pit toilets,” said the school’s principal Fredah Mpai.
A newly formed Ministry of Basic Education has begun a long and expensive process that has turned some of the farm schools into places with qualified staff and basic infrastructure.
During the World Cup hosted by South Africa, Zuma placed a new emphasis on education, holding an education summit and linking the event to improving local schools.
Critics said the money spent for soccer stadiums would have been better used for building schools in the country that
government estimates say faces up to a 180 billion rand ($23.82 billion) backlog in infrastructure for education.
At Knoppiesfontein, about an hours’ drive east of Pretoria, students squeeze in multi-grade classes in the main building while the overflow of younger charges are placed in corrugated tin shacks without electricity.
Farm schools in other parts of the country are in even worse shape. “The problem is time. We wish it to be soon because we are suffering a lot,” Mpai said of the new government push.
Education is the largest segment of South Africa’s budget, accounting for 20 percent of state spending in the continent’s largest economy, but the largesse has not led to dramatic improvements in the school system or test scores.
The OECD said in a report this week the country needed to improve basic education to compete with rising countries in Africa and rich nations globally.
“If we do not tackle education, then we will have failed to tackle the development of this country,” Zuma said at a Reuters Newsmaker event last month in Johannesburg.
Farm schools are officially known as “public schools on private land” and serve what some educators estimate to be at least 15 percent of the country’s 12.3 million students.
After apartheid ended, provincial school districts were supposed to reach agreements with land owners, mostly farmers but also Christian churches, for running the schools.
Most landowners complied, a few converted their farms into wild game preserves for dangerous animals while keeping the schools open, and about 800 have yet to reach any agreement.
“For a long time, the pace of signing those agreements has been very slow. As a result ... the infrastructure maintenance and improvement that should have happened did not happen,” said Gerrit Coetzee, director of rural education for the Ministry of Basic Education. “Today, the appearance of most of those schools is in an appalling state.”
The government was spurred to action in 2004 after a stinging Human Rights Watch report on the schools’ condition.
Coetzee said the ministry finally has an effective plan in place for improving farm schools that includes closing the likes of Knoppiesfontein -- once students are prepared for the change and can be sent to better and appropriate schools nearby.
One of the success stories is the Boschkop Primary School about 30 minutes away by car where, although Spartan, students have desks, books, classrooms with electricity and hot lunches.
The school was once a mud hut set up in 1953 by white farmers who would provide food once a week. It has been rebuilt with money from the government and private donors to help the about 900 students there now being taught by 24 educators.
Principal Peter Masombuka has been in the post since 1983 when he had to work in the fields after the school day. He now oversees the installation of a computer lab.
“There have been improvements,” the ministry’s Coetzee said. “The question is how do you accelerate that.”
Editing by Gugulakhe Lourie and Maria Golovnina