Afrikaans school told it must let in blacks

Divided nation: Court ruling pits majority's aspirations against white militants
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The Independent Online


South Africa's Supreme Court yesterday ordered the predominantly Afrikaner primary school here to open its doors to black pupils. The ruling was met with surprising calmness by militant white parents who have been maintaining an almost month-long vigil at the school's back entrance to make sure no "undesirables" made it into the building.

A well made-up woman wearing jeans and a white T-shirt shrugged when asked what she thought the court's decision meant to her campaign to keep the school white. "I don't want to say anything, but we have our plans. Right now we are just sitting here," she said before returning to her circle of guardians, who were lounging in garden chairs set up next to a cordon of mud-splattered pick-up trucks.

What those plans involve are anybody's guess. Nearly a month ago, some of the same parents formed a blockade outside the school to prevent three small black children, who had been enrolled by the principal, from entering the premises. They shouted obscenities at the children and then teargassed a television crew.

Since then, the Potgietersrus primary school has found itself under international scrutiny and at the centre of a constitutional test case, pitting one racial group's claim to safeguard its culture and language against another group's desire for quality non-racial education.

The school, 160 miles north of Johannesburg, is surrounded today by barbed wire and boasts a heavy front gate, complete with a closed-circuit video system. If it were not for the children playing in the yard, the red-brick building could be a prison, or possibly a fort, which is how many of the parents of the 600-odd children prefer to see it.

The parents view the school as a bastion of Afrikaner culture. They believe they are defending their language, religion and way of life from non-Afrikaans- speaking children, whom they fear might flood in and steal all that they hold dear. The authorities in the Northern Province saw the action as nothing other than thinly disguised racism.

The provincial government and 21 black families from the area took the school to the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, Judge Tjibbe Spoelstra ruled the school could "not unfairly on the grounds of race, ethnic or social origin, culture, colour or language, refuse to admit any child". He ordered it to allow the three black children named in the court application and 18 others to participate fully in its activities, and told it to pay the court costs of the black parents.

The Education Minister, Sibusiso Bengu, told a news conference he was delighted. "We saw this as a national case and are pleased that the judgement has come this way," he said.

Authorities expect the first black children to enrol next week. But the Potgietersrus story is not over. An appeal could be heard in the Constitutional Court. More dramatically, after Judge Spoelstra ordered "all reasonable steps" to protect children against intimidation, threats or wrongful interference, officials said that police might have to be deployed, turning the school into a South African version of Little Rock, Arkansas, where troops had to escort black pupils to a white high school in 1957.

The Potgietersrus Town Clerk, Karel Liebenberg, said he was not sure how the parents might react. "We don't want violence. I believe that the police will see to it that violence does not occur."

Meanwhile, as their school's future was being decided in Pretoria, dozens of young white boys in khaki shorts and shirts and girls in red skirts and white blouses played in the schoolyard under dark threatening skies. It has rained almost ceaselessly in the Northern Province for the past week, causing widespread flooding.But the children played on, oblivious to the skies and the impending political storm which will almost certainly hit their town some time next week.