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It's been 14 years now since South Africa formally ended the racial system known as apartheid. That's long enough for thousands of children to go through school and graduate. The trouble is, they've gone through schools that were twisted for decades, and 14 years have not been long enough to fix them. In the latest report in her series, NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault continues educating us on South Africa today.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

It's Thursday at Reahola Primary School, and that's a good thing.

(Soundbite of metal banging)

HUNTER-GAULT: It's a good thing because it's lunchtime, and plates are being passed out to the 1,600 students who will enjoy a rich stew of beans and rice. But Friday is another story.

Mr. NACHEMANE MAJOLA (Principal, Reahola Primary School): No food.

HUNTER-GAULT: Nachemane Majola is the school's principal.

Mr. MAJOLA: The fifth day, they stay without food, and that makes them also not want to come to school, because what drives them to come to school is when they eat because there is nothing at home.

HUNTER-GAULT: Majola tells me most of the families in the area are black and poor, having been retrenched from the now-less-productive gold mines nearby.

Mr. MAJOLA: The ceiling is falling.

HUNTER-GAULT: Majola says the government is trying, but the budget allocations are still not enough to renovate the 25-year-old building with ceilings falling down or otherwise meet the needs of his students, many of whom are HIV-positive orphans, many sick and, of course, hungry.

Mr. MAJOLA: It does affect learning, of course. You know, a child cannot learn with an empty stomach. Concentration, (unintelligible). I'm dealing with young learners. They must get food in order to be attentive to such things the whole day.

Ms. JAN PASCAL(ph) (Every Child Is Ours, South Africa): They needed everything.

HUNTER-GAULT: Jan Pascal is an American whose organization, Every Child is Ours, has helped bring books to this and several other schools in the area to fill near-empty bookshelves. But she says when she first came…

Ms. PASCAL: They needed books. They needed school supplies. And I knew that if we could get things, that they would utilize them in the way that anyone would want them to.

HUNTER-GAULT: Although the school can't afford chairs, the library shelves are now filled with math books and other reading materials from America. But many of the country's schools opened this year with no books, and that, in part, has led to steadily decreasing student performance in the past 11 years of the country's multi-racial democracy.

For example, studies show every year, on average for the past four years, only 17 percent of high-school graduates achieved grades high enough to enter college, but according to Mary Metcalf, head of the School of Education at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, the educational deficits are revealed even earlier.

Ms. MARY METCALF (School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa): Children as few years as three years into school are really not performing as well as they are patently able to do.

HUNTER-GAULT: Metcalf says these results are rooted in the country's historic system of apartheid, where the white minority government deliberately undereducated blacks to keep them subservient.

One of the first tasks of the new black-led government after it came to power in 1994 was dismantling the 14 separate and unequal ethnically based school systems that favored whites.

The government created what is hoped would be a more equitable, unified system, but the inequities remain, say experts like Metcalf.

Ms. METCALF: It's the children of the poor who we continue to fail, and that, of course, coincides as class issue with race in our country, as an historic fact.

HUNTER-GAULT: Metcalf is among those who are worried about consequences of such a severely challenged education system.

Ms. METCALF: If you look at the number of young people who left school between 2005 and 2007, there's half a million who've left with no school-leaving certificate and who have very little chance of doing anything other than competing for very lowly skilled employment opportunities.

HUNTER-GAULT: South Africa's education minister has acknowledged the poor state of the public education system and has insisted that government and its partners to find new ways of fixing both the dilapidated buildings and student pass rates. And the new leadership of the ruling African National Congress party insists there will be new approaches after the presidential election in 2009, including reopening of teacher-training institutions that will increase the number of qualified teachers, especially in the poor, rural areas.

Ruling ANC party spokesman Jesse Duarte.

Ms. JESSE DUARTE (Spokesman, African National Congress, South Africa): The preoccupation after 2009 will be training, training and more training.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, despite the myriad challenges he's facing at Reahola Primary School, as Principal Majola looks out on the young people in his care, he's hopeful, not least because of his own experiences when he was their age.

Mr. MAJOLA: I've gone through apartheid. I attended very poor schools in farms, and I think with the little knowledge that I've acquired through the help of my parents, that keeps me going. We are still a new democratic country. Things will develop with time because we are starting, I think. For something new to come out clear, we need to go through some challenges, and I think if we are focused, we'll get there.

HUNTER-GAULT: The future of the country depends on such hope. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Orkney, South Africa.

INSKEEP: You're only hearing this coverage on MORNING EDITION. And tomorrow we'll look at South Africa's public health care and explain why it's in poor health. You can hear more stories in our series on South Africa at npr.org.

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