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A superficial calm falls over black schools in South Africa

The school stands quiet and deserted, its classes closed until the 1985 school year starts after the Southern Hemisphere summer holiday. Yet it was this modest high school in Atteridgeville, a black township west of Pretoria, that early this year probably lit the fuse to the black unrest still troubling South Africa.

The police vehicles that kept a watchful eye last week as some students finished their exams have withdrawn.

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But the calm now falling over South Africa's black schools is a superficial one, say black students, community leaders, and parents. Black education remains in a state of turmoil and has become so politicized in the minds of young blacks that its ultimate solution lies only in the granting of meaningful political rights to blacks.

The unrest that has plagued South Africa for much of this year has broadened well beyond the sphere of youth and student demands. But the attitude of black youth remains a critical feature that could either drive the protest further or allow it to peter out, analysts say.

This year's trouble in the black schools is at odds with government claims that it has made a major effort to right past wrongs and improve the facilities and overall quality of black education. The more things change, the more things stay the same, many blacks seem to be saying.

Student unrest hit Atteridgeville early this year and was so widespread that six high schools were closed for much of the year. School boycotts spread countrywide and affected hundreds of thousands of black students, on and off, through the school year.

Black students have paid a high price. Some have been killed in clashes with the police. Many have been detained under the security laws. And many have had their educational careers cut short.

Ruben, a lanky 18-year-old black student, has boycotted classes since July this year. He has also refused to sit for his matriculation examination, meaning his hopes of going to a university have been dashed - at least for now. About 5, 000 blacks have been unable or unwilling to take their matriculation exams this year due to unrest in the schools.

''Sure I wanted to go to university,'' Ruben says with a shrug of the shoulder. But he adds, ''I'm not fighting for myself, but for the coming generation.''

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Ruben is a member of the Congress of South African Students, the main black student organization that has spearheaded this year's boycott movement. He says COSAS's main demand is for black students to have their own ''student representative councils,'' or SRCs, which would be elected by students to articulate their demands about how the schools should be run.

The government recently said black students may have councils next year. But COSAS has rejected the government's offer - principally because it doesn't like the way the government has structured the SRCs. It also objects that COSAS was given no role in drawing up the constitution of the SRCs.

The idea of giving high-school students a say in running their schools strikes many as excessive. But some blacks believe the demand is a natural outcome of the apartheid system, where blacks have no political rights and their segregated government-run schools are seen as something over which they must have more control.

The government believes it is making major strides in black education. Annual budget increases in black education have in recent years been greater than for white education. Black school enrollment is rising rapidly. And the pupil-teacher ratio in black schools is improving, from 58 to 1 in 1968 to about 40 to 1 today.

In the next few years, depending on a number of factors, the number of black high-school graduates should exceed for the first time the number of white graduates.

But blacks see a different picture - one where the quality of education is actually falling. In some respects, this is an outcome of the expanded enrollment. The government has not been able to provide enough new qualified teachers, and has relied on instructors with very poor qualifications. Generally , morale among black teachers is said to be very low.

Blacks point to lower exam results. The percentage of blacks passing the matriculation examination has fallen sharply from 83 percent in 1976 to about 50 percent last year. (It should also be noted that the absolute number of students taking the exam rose from 9,500 in 1976 to 72,000 last year.)

The percentage of blacks qualifying for university also has fallen. More than 35 percent of blacks who took the matriculation exam in 1976 qualified to go to university, but 10 percent qualified last year. (Again, though, the absolute number increased.)

Blacks are also critical that the government spends more on education for whites than it does for blacks. Black students outnumber whites by more than 5 to 1, but the per-capita expenditure on a white student is about seven times greater than what it is for a black.

But looking at black students' grievances in narrow educational terms probably misses the point, some analysts say. There is a growing feeling among blacks that education can never be acceptable within the framework of apartheid.

In a nutshell, the problem with black education is that ''it's imposed,'' says Dr. Abrahim Nkomo, a community leader at Atteridgeville. ''We have no opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process'' that determines education policy, he complains.

The newly formed Soweto Parents' Committee has presented a list of grievances to the government that it says must be met. The committee held extensive talks with student groups and has proposed that the government, students, parents, and other ''interested parties'' draw up a new constitution for student representative councils. The committee also called for more parental involvement in education, the scrapping of the government's age limits for each grade in school, stricter control of corporal punishment by teachers, better classroom facilities for blacks, and the release of detained students.

But the committee said that at best the proposals could only temporarily ''normalize'' the situation in the black schools. Ultimately a political solution was needed.

Manas Buthelezi, chairman of the Soweto Parents' Committee, says the student uprising of 1976 raised the political consciousness of young blacks tremendously and has made them very determined.

''They've experienced what we never experienced: tear gas and bullets. Its not a normal experience for the average schoolgoing child. Our children have become hardened and I think they see themselves as part of a guerrilla warfare, but without any weapons,'' says Buthelezi.

''The government may introduce wonderful reforms'' in the schools, says Buthelezi, but as long as the basic philosophy remains, where whites make the final decisions about education, ''you'll have problems.''

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