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Unrest in S. Africa's black schools

Minerva High School was meant to demonstrate government goodwill toward blacks in Alexandra, a squalid township on the edge of Johannesburg. But this week the handsome three-story pebble and concrete high school - occupied earlier this year but still waiting for its ceremonial opening - was padlocked. The charred end of one building told a story of student unrest that has erupted twice in the short life of Minerva High.

There is a corresponding swell of black unrest in schools throughout South Africa that blacks attribute to a general dissatisfaction with the education system, which is seen as inextricably linked with the white government's apartheid policies. As long as schools are segregated and controlled by a white minority government, black education will be inferior, many blacks say.

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''The surroundings are fine,'' says a young black man in Alexandra, referring to new schools such as Minerva High. ''But the school system has not improved.''

The nominal demands of black students involved in the protests are similar. They want to elect their own student representative councils and be given more power in running schools, they want an end to what they charge is excessive corporal punishment in schools, and they want the age limits for particular grade levels lifted.

The South African Department of Education and Training, which administers black schools under the segregated education system, estimates at least 15,000 schoolchildren are affected by school closures. There has been at least one related student death.

''It's somewhat alarming,'' admits an official in the department. But he points out that the unrest is still affecting a small percentage of the total black student population of 1.7 million.

Blacks knowledgeable about problems at the schools caution against drawing too many direct parallels between the present situation and the eruption of student unrest that rocked South Africa in 1976.

But many black leaders consider the current situation potentially explosive. They say student dissatisfaction should not be seen in isolation. Unemployment is rampant in many townships and black poverty is deepening due to South Africa's severe recession. At the same time, the white government's political agenda focuses on a new constitution that denies blacks any political participation.

A black who was an activist in 1976 says today's students are not nearly so united as they were in the '76 riots. He says Minerva High School, for instance, was divided, with some students demanding representative councils and others not wanting a showdown with school authorities.

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A student at Minerva explained that earlier in the year the students had been granted a representative council. It was dissolved by the principal, who said it could not ensure student discipline. Instead, he appointed prefects. The prefect system is the common method of choosing school leaders in black schools.

The spark that ignited Minerva High was a demand by some students for refunds of money they had paid for materials in a wood shop class that never got going. There was a dispute about how many students were entitled to reimbursements.

A student says the situation became chaotic, with students fighting students, as well as burning part of the school and throwing stones at the cars of teachers.

The minister of education and training, Dr. Gerrit Viljoen, said this week in commenting on the student unrest that ''there is ample evidence of incitement by outsiders'' and that they are using students ''for their own political aims.''

Some black leaders agree there is some outside incitement. But Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, says, ''If the situation is such that an agitator can exploit it so easily, it is an admission that there is fundamentally something wrong.'' He says the underlying problem is simple: ''We hate black education.''

Within the framework of segregated education, the government has been more attentive to the educational needs of blacks since 1976. Most noticeable is the number of new schools. Government education officials say it is inappropriate for schoolchildren to have the kinds of powers some are demanding - like hiring and firing teachers. But the government is introducing liaison committees at black schools that will have student, parent, teacher, and government representatives.

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