Good rises from ashes of race row

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Karen Mac Gregor on the extraordinary saga of the school governors standing in the way of the future.

One of the more bizarre episodes in the extraordinary saga of the Potgietersrus primary school - site of the continuing race struggle between reactionary Afrikaners and the South African government - was a threat by the premier of Northern Province to stage a protest at the school.

Why, many South Africans wondered, was Ngoako Ramatlhodi bucking the international practice of protests being the property of opposition groups and decisions being the domain of government?

The Northern Province and central governments have been criticised for their lack of action against the right-wing (former) governors of the Potgietersrus primary, who caused an outcry when they refused to admit black pupils in January.

While South Africa's conciliatory new government was leaning over backwards trying to persuade the governors to be reasonable - and the governors were trying equally unsuccessfully to convince the world that they were not racist but merely protecting their language and culture - events were getting out of hand.

Even the many whites who have yet to make the mental leap into the new South Africa were puzzled as to why the state simply did not move in and take over. After all, that's how things were always done before.

Ramatlhodi's threat was just one of several inflammatory incidents which have unfolded in this unprepossessing one-horse town.

The saga began in late January, when the three children of Alson Matukane, a director in Northern Province's water affairs department, were accepted for admission at the primary school. The thought of black and white children learning together galvanised conservatives into action, and on the first day of term the Matukane children were turned back by a throng of aggressive Afrikaners.

White parents continued their vigil at the school gates for weeks, prompting a mass protest march through the town in February and the Northern Province government to order the school to admit black pupils. When parents defied the command, the provincial government took them to court and won an order for the school to admit 21 black children. An appeal by the school to take the case to the Constitutional Court was turned down.

But the matter was far from over. The following day, when 13 black pupils arrived at the school, they were placed in the library and told to watch TV while white parents led their children away, muttering about dropping standards. More black pupils arrived over the next few weeks, and many white children returned to class.

However, a hardline group of white parents held out, setting up a "private" school in a hostel across the road. Ten teachers began teaching the "renegade" children in their spare time. Soon the white children were helping their parents load chairs and desks from the primary school on to a truck, for transport across the road.

It was the last straw. Facing criticism over lack of action and sorely provoked by the Potgietersrus parents, the provincial government finally called in the police, who blockaded the hostel, returned the school's property and refused to let the "private" teachers in. Police said people would be charged for trespassing on private property.

In early March the governing body obtained an interdict from a local magistrate forbidding the provincial government stopping private tuition. The interdict was questionable from the start - it was granted without the knowledge of the government, which thus was not given a chance to respond, and flaunted the Supreme Court ruling - and was later overturned by another magistrate.

On March 11 there was an arson attack on the school principal's office. Ramatlhodi was outraged: "There will be no mercy towards criminals who set our children's school on fire," he said. "We are convinced that had racists not created an atmosphere of hostility, terrorists would have found it difficult to take up arms against children."

On March 12, the provincial government announced its intention to dissolve Potgietersrus's governing body and take control of the school.

Meanwhile, the central government has done little more than insist that new education policies do not allow schools to bar children on the grounds of race, and issue televised statements pointing out that the vast majority of "white" schools are admitting black pupils.

It is true that the Potgietersrus controversy is atypical. Integration has gone ahead in most Afrikaans schools with little trouble, although in many the admission of black pupils has been slow. South Africa's democratic image has been tarnished and its patience tried by events in Potgietersrus, but the experience has not been all bad.

First, Afrikaner parents are losing their battle, sending signals to other reactionary schools that it will not be possible to maintain white or Afrikaner exclusivity.

Second, the legal system has ruled against schools refusing to admit any child on the grounds of "race, ethnic or social origin, culture, colour or language". This indicates that the new constitution will not easily be used to argue the case for admissions based on the protection of language or culture.

Third, while government leaders have been accused of ineffectiveness, at least it has been willing to resolve issues through negotiation rather than force.

And finally, Potgietersrus has highlighted a looming language issue. New education policy says that the language of instruction should be decided by parents and the community. But as "white" schools admit more black pupils, the day will surely come when the small white minority will be outnumbered at schools everywhere. What future for Afrikaans then?

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