Race row reaches Supreme Court

16th February 1996 at 00:00
South Africa. An uneasy calm has settled over Potgietersrus, the sleepy rural town in northern South Africa which has been jolted out of its apartheid past by a row over the barring of black pupils from its all-white primary school. It is certainly the calm before a storm.

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating over an application by the Northern Province government and some parents for an order to prevent the Potgietersrus primary school from excluding children on the grounds of race.

Both sides are using the interim constitution to support their case, with the government arguing that the constitution bans racial discrimination. For its part, the school denies racism, saying that the constitution protects language and cultural rights. This is the first South African case to test which of these rights take precedence.

Whatever the decision, there is bound to be trouble. Ultra-conservative whites in the town have made it clear they do not want racial mixing at "their" school. But in the new South Africa, local black people will never accept an all-white educational enclave.

Trouble began last month when Alson Matukane, a director in Northern Province's water affairs department, drove his three children to their new school for the first day of term.

The children had been interviewed and accepted the previous day, but on arrival were confronted by around 100 aggressive, khaki-clad Afrikaners who refused them entry. Soon afterwards, Mr Matukane's house was vandalised.

White parents continued their vigil at the school gates for weeks, defying the provincial government's orders that black pupils should be admitted. The province responded by serving a Supreme Court summons on the governing body.

The enraged black community of Potgietersrus organised a march last week to demand an end to discrimination in schools, which attracted thousands. Their concerns are shared by millions of black South Africans who are angry at the unwillingness of many whites to share their well resourced facilities, insulted by their lingering racism and disappointed by the Government's apparent failure to force conservative white schools to open up.

This is particularly the case in rural towns, where many Afrikaans schools are using language and culture as an excuse to exclude black children. Often they claim that black pupils are not applying because they prefer to learn in English. But Potgietersrus primary has been a dual medium school for the past 40 years.

Koos Nel, chairman of the school's management committee, strongly denies that the Matukanes and other black children had been barred on grounds of race. The school says it is full, and has turned away both black and white children.

Jack Mokobi a Northern Province spokesman, told The TES that the province calculated the school had the capacity to admit 136 more than its current intake of 570 pupils. "Last year the school had about 69 children in its English stream. This year it has 44. We can think of no reason why it can't take as many pupils this year," he said.

"The school is trying to disguise racism as lack of space, and the language and culture argument is a non-issue. No concerns were raised about language and culture when admitting English-speaking pupils. It only became a problem when black pupils applied."

Parents of Afrikaans pupils have not minced their words. As one told the Star newspaper: "God warns us in the Bible about mixing race. It is only the communist government who wants this. Under no circumstances will my children mix with blacks."

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