Some see a deep cynicism behind the conditions in the schools. When black South Africans become educated and move into the middle class, their loyalty to the party tends to wane, recent elections have shown. So by perpetuating a culture of dependence, critics contend, the A.N.C. ensures its dominance.

But Ms. Mhaule, the childhood peer of Mr. Mabuza, rejected any suggestion that the A.N.C. had failed to prioritize education.

Before becoming deputy foreign minister, she served as Mr. Mabuza’s education minister in the province for nearly a decade. The A.N.C., she said, had built schools in every corner of the country, making education accessible to all. The government gives students meals, books and, to the poorest, free education. It also issues monthly grants to children, pensions to the elderly and free houses to many, she said.

She dismissed the argument that education had been as good, or better, during apartheid, calling it a false depiction of the nation’s brutal past.

“If you know the Bible, the story of the Egyptians moving from Egypt to Canaan, when they were faced with the Red Sea, they said, ‘Why did you take us out of Egypt? It was good there,’” she said.

Officials like Ms. Mhaule say the rising pass rate on the national high school exam provides clear evidence of progress. But the figures can be misleading. The number of students taking the exam has declined in the past two years. Weaker students who would drag down the rate are being held back, education experts say.

About 600 protesters gathered at the school that cold Friday morning when Mr. Siboza, the local A.N.C. councilor, arrived with a police escort. As he moved to talk to the parents, demonstrators showered him with rocks.

Orignially published in NYT.

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