Parents fight to keep all-white school

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The Independent Online
The authorities in South Africa's Northern Province have given a primary school in the rural town of Potgietersrus until tomorrow to open its doors to three six-year-old black children who have been barred from attending for more than a week.

Last Wednesday the pupils found their way blocked by 200 white parents screaming threats in Afrikaans. The parents have maintained a vigil at the gates of the Potgietersrus Primary School ever since. They deny racist motives, and insist they are trying to protect the school's cultural and religious standards from non-Afrikaans-speaking children who might flood in and lower the quality of education.

The provincial government is not buying it. "Those three children were enrolled by the school's principal himself," said a spokesman, Jack Mokobi. "In the past, the school has accepted white, English-speaking students without so much as a peep. The excuse now of protecting culture and language is nothing more than a smokescreen for racism."

If the school does not admit all colours, the Northern Province will get a court order to force it to do so. An earlier deadline yesterday was apparently extended at the request of the school board of governors, to help to cool tempers.

Some people fear confrontation in Potgietersrus may end in bloodshed and harden attitudes between black South Africans and Afrikaners. "So far we have worked very hard and succeeded in keeping this a peaceful struggle," said Daan van der Merwe, a spokesman for the governors. "The parents do not want violence. But there can be, as you know, in any Afrikaner community, extremists. There is no guarantee if the government forces the school to take children against its will that these people might not react."

Mr van der Merwe said the school had not refused entry to children because they were black, but because it was full. "We have turned down applications from white and black students. But we are suspected because we turned away blacks," he said. The school would admit black children but only in numbers the school could accommodate, and parents wanted guarantees they would respect the school's "Afrikaner, Christian character".

Non-racial education was introduced after all-race elections in April 1994 but some schools, known as "Model C", are still under white control because parents in effect own the schools.

The row over the school, about 120 miles north of Pretoria, is the latest test of wills between the government of President Nelson Mandela and right-wing Afrikaners over the pace and form of change. The government is committed to integrating once-exclusive white institutions, while Afrikaners resent their loss of privilege.

Mr Mandela yesterday reassured representatives of 13 Afrikaans women's groups in Pretoria that Afrikaners had no reason to worry. Their rights were protected under the constitution, and there was no plan to eradicate their language. Schools in Afrikaans areas could continue instruction in Afrikaans but had to provide classes in other languages where it was necessary.

He said Afrikaners had to be careful not to let efforts to protect their language and culture be seen as an attempt to drag the country back into the era of white domination.

n Johannesburg - Louis Farrakhan, leader of the militant US black Muslim group, Nation of Islam, met Winnie Mandela yesterday and praised her contribution to the anti-apartheid movement, AP reports. "As you well know, she is well liked both in this country and in America," Mr Farrakhan said of Mrs Mandela, who is estranged from her husband.