Nearly half of the black high school students who took their graduation tests in Johannesburg's black township of Soweto in November learned this month that they had failed. Many others got such poor passing grades that they cannot gain entrance to a university.
By contrast, more than 93 percent of the white students graduated in Transvaal Province, which includes Soweto and Johannesburg. Most of them also qualified for admission to universities.
The white students received their results three weeks after they took their state-school exams. They were announced amid much excitement and publicity, with students who had scored particularly well getting their pictures in the local papers.
But two months after the exams and following the beginning of the academic year last week, the black results are emerging piecemeal in an atmosphere of confusion and recrimination. The government has made no official announcement and will not make any for the next month since some tests were leaked before the examination from the all-white government department that runs black education. A tenth of the students have been ordered to take the exams again.
The department refuses to release the overall results until all are ready on Feb. 14, although some schools have been given their results confidentially.
The Soweto results were made public when South Africa's only daily newspaper for blacks, the Sowetan, published findings of its own survey.
"We are disgusted about this whole business," the Sowetan said in an editorial. "Our frustration is slowly turning to livid anger at the damage the education system is doing to our children."
Black bitterness about segregated education, which sparked serious nationwide disturbances in 1976 that left 700 students dead, remains one of the most explosive issues in South Africa.
Blacks argue that even by the system's own standards the situation is getting worse. They point to a dramatic drop in the number of black students who have passed the graduation exams. The pass ratewas 87 percent in 1976 and 71 percent in 1979. The education department's regional director for the Johannesburg area, Jaap Strydom, has given Soweto a 57 percent pass rate.
Interviews published by the Sowetan show that many black parents believe the poor test results and the administrative muddle accompanying them are part of a plot by the government to obstruct black advancement and give the impression that blacks are intellectually inferior.
"The idea is to frustrate the black student and the entire black nation," former teacher Tom Manthata was quoted as saying.
In 1954, Hendrik F. Verwoerd, later prime minister and the architect of apartheid, the country's system of strict racial segregation, outlined the belief that education for blacks should gear them for a distinctly inferior place in white society.
It was also Verwoerd's idea that blacks should be territorially separated from whites, in small tribal "homelands" that could be given independence.
Their presence in the cities was considered temporary, and huge townships such as Soweto, in his theory, were supposed to wither away. Therefore, it was thought, there should be no great expenditure on permanent facilities such as schools in these townships. But blacks have continued to move to the cities, overcrowding the rudimentary school buildings.
Moreover, the country's burgeoning industrial economy has outgrown its limited resources of white skills. Increased numbers of skilled blacks are needed.
To find out how to meet this need the government appointed a commission of top educators 18 months ago to examine the country's educational system.
The commission reported in October on the enormous inferiority of black education in almost every respect. The government spends $1,075 a year on each white student and $114 on each black child.
The commission recommended merging the various racial systems under one government department. At present separate systems handle whites, Africans, Coloreds (persons of mixed blood) and East Indians.
The government accepted many of the commission's recommendations, but not the merger of the racial systems.
Nonetheless, the government has tried to bolster the black education system in recent years.
Education official Strydom notes that in three years $22 million has been spent on building and equipping schools in Soweto.
Overcrowding, he says, has become a thing of the past, even though the number of black children in school has soared from 16,000 in the final year of high school in 1978 to 50,000 last year.
Strydom attributes the poor exam results to this increase. The growing number of students, he says, has surpassed the number of qualified teachers. The commission estimated that 85 percent of the black teacher corps is underqualified.
Black educators are not impressed by this argument and refer to the declining number of students who fail the exam.
The black educators attribute the decline to a collapse of morale in black schools and a breakdown of relationships with students after the government crushed the 1976 uprising.
Ezekiel Mpahlele, a black South African who was a professor of English at the University of Denver and the University of Pennsylvania before returning here in 1977, talks of "an undeclared war between teachers and pupils."
"Morale among teachers is very low," he says. "They are having to uphold a rigid authoritarian system which was forced down their throats. They have lost their self-respect and the respect the children once had for them."
Part of the problem is that many of the most independent-minded and best black teachers left after the the 1976 uprising was crushed rather than continue to be part of the system.
One is Tamsanqa Kambule, former headmaster of South Africa's biggest school, Orlando High in Soweto.
"I made a resolution," he says, "that I would never go back as long as there is a segregated system."
The position among Colored students, in their separate system, is no better. Their high school exam results are down 30 percent compared with last year.
The president of the Union of Teachers' Associations, Franklin Sonn, attributes this mainly to a wave of disturbances that swept the Colored schools in 1980 and 1981.
"The main battle facing teachers," Sonn said, "is to try to persuade the students that whatever the circumstances they must try to get the best education they can. It is the one thing that is not expendable."