South African officials are proposing that children recite a pledge of allegiance in school, to promote a sense of history and civic responsibility. But instead of bringing the country together, the South African proposal has sparked intense debate about the state of education and race relations after apartheid. Terry FitzPatrick reports from Cape Town.
South African president Thabo Mbeki drew strong applause last month when he told parliament that children should begin each day paying tribute to their country.
"We should develop a pledge that will be recited by learners in their morning school assembly, as well as a youth pledge extolling the virtues of humane conduct and human solidarity among all South Africans," he said.
A few days later, Education Minister Naledi Pandor revealed that a draft of the pledge was complete.
"We the youth of South Africa, recognizing the injustices of our past, honor those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom," said Pandor. "We will respect and protect the dignity of each person, and stand up for justice. We sincerely declare that we shall uphold the rights and values of our constitution, and promise to act in accordance with the duties and responsibilities that flow from these rights. !KE /: XARRA// KE Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika."
The final phrase means: "Diverse people unite, Lord bless Africa." But rather than uniting South Africans, the text has sparked an outcry.
Remarks from callers to a discussion program on Cape Talk radio typify the criticism.
Caller 1: References to injustices of the past, every nation has past injustices. Why must we dwell on them? I think it's very, very divisive.
Caller 2: I just think it's propaganda. When are we going to draw the line? What have our kids, first of all, got to do with it?
Radio host Aden Thomas says the pledge has touched a nerve about the state of post-apartheid South Africa.
"There's been massive negative reaction to the pledge in some way making reference to injustices of the past," he said. "And, perhaps that's symptomatic of just how we are not fully dealing with many of the social problems we have in our country, where people don't want to be reminded of it."
In many ways, injustice continues. The end of apartheid 14 years ago brought political transformation. But the economy has been slow to change. Many neighborhoods are still segregated, with millions of blacks still in shacks. The crime rate is among the world's worst. Teachers are concerned that a new generation of South Africans is growing up without a sense of national unity, civic pride or personal responsibility to improve the situation.
"There's a deep need on the part of the education department to be seen to be responding to these kinds of issues, to be talking about good citizenship," said education professor Crain Soudien at the University of Cape Town.
But he says schools are not teaching children how to live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. He calls the pledge superficial.
"This is simply sweet talking South Africans into a particular mode of dealing with each other's differences and their relationships with each other," said Soudien. "It doesn't get substantively at what it means to live in a country of such complexity such as we have. It introduces a form of patriotism that doesn't get children to deal with these kinds of questions."
Others are concerned the pledge imposes politics on children. At its recent convention, the ruling African National Congress noted that younger delegates lacked a grasp of history. The party called for political schooling of new members, and better civics education overall. When government quickly unveiled a pledge of allegiance, political analyst Zwelethu Jolobe at the University of Cape Town was suspicious.
"I found it very suspect overall that there is this grand announcement of this pledge," said Jolobe. "It means that there are much more sinister motives, perhaps, behind it that have to do primarily with party political issues and not with what is needed in the public schooling sector."
Not everyone opposes the pledge. Many people support the idea but think the wording needs work. Officials are accepting comment before deciding if the language should change. The education minister concedes that public consultation should have been conducted before any draft was written.