Riots expose rural sham of integration

17th April 1998 at 01:00
SOUTH AFRICA. Inigo Gilmore reports on black pupils' violent reaction against apartheid-style schooling.

The cartoon in a South African national newspaper was scathing in its commentary about the Afrikaans dominated town at the centre of a major education race row. Above a sketch of large white man in khaki shorts was a caption reading "Welcome to Vryburg, 1918."

Founded by Afrikaners at the turn of century as a trading station in the heart of the North West province, neither its physical make-up nor the attitude of its white residents has changed much since. So when growing national tensions over educational integration erupted into a racial battle at Vryburg High School few commentators were surprised.

The trigger for the clashes early last month was the expulsion of five black pupils for non-payment of fees. Over the next three weeks the town was engulfed by scenes of violence reminiscent of the apartheid era - white parents whipping black pupils with sjamboks and police firing teargas as rampaging, stone-throwing youths overturned and torched cars.

The demonstrations continued until the school was closed early for Easter and independent investigators were sent in. They quickly identified the problem. "There was no transformation," the report reads. "There were two schools operating from one premise."

Apartheid was always more entrenched in South Africa's rural areas and there is no question that Vryburg's inequalities have perpetuated the school's clashes. The town's black families are mostly unemployed and live in township houses of mud and corrugated iron roofing with pits for toilets. Their white counterparts live in spacious homes and control the local businesses.

Shortly before the school descended into chaos a 17-year-old black boy was randomly assaulted by a group of white pupils. Three days later a white girl accused four black pupils of fondling her. Despite their denials the boys were assaulted by white pupils.

"There is nothing black students can do that is worthy of praise here," said Cliff Sharoane, a grade 12 pupil and one of the accused. "The school authorities are hell-bent on demoralising us."

Education officials had been expecting Vryburg to boil over for six months. A report published this month notes that recommendations made following similar disturbances in 1996 were not implemented. Now the provincial African National Congress government has disbanded the all-white governing body and established a commission of inquiry.

Last year the Human Rights Commission investigated 29 alleged cases of racism at Afrikaans schools including Elandspoort High School in Pretoria where classes were recently suspended for two weeks after a fight that left two black students in hospital.

Louis van Dyk, principal of Linden High School, an integrated school in Johannesburg, blamed parents for the clashes. He said it is difficult for children to tolerate each other when parents cannot. But he stressed that it was wrong to think that all Afrikaans schools were struggling with racial clashes.

But his urban attitude contrasts starkly with those in rural dorpies (small towns) like the North West province town of Schweizer-Reneke. Here the high school has recently been forced to enrol 30 black and coloured (mixed race) Afrikaans-speaking children from the nearby township. In February resentment at this "invasion" erupted when four township pupils were attacked by white boys wielding cricket bats. Three black pupils were in hospital for several days with head and facial wounds.

"Rainbow nation is kak (shit)," said Piet, a 16-year-old white pupil. "We're not interested in what happens in places like Johannesburg. We were raised on farms where black people work for us, not with us. We don't want to mix. They have their place and we have ours."

Such attitudes expose the grim reality that in many rural towns post-apartheid transformation particularly in education, has at best been superficial.

Vryburg's residents are now gearing up for the next phase of confrontation with talk of a white rent and rates boycott and a consumer boycott by blacks. For many rural whites the war against integration is only just beginning. For them it is a matter of holding on to what they see as the last bastion of cultural superiority - education.

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