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Black education: microcosm of S. African politics. Blacks reject government aim of seperate but equal schooling

``By the year 2020, black people will constitute 78 percent of the country's population. . . . Their education and training is of vital importance.'' The speaker at a recent political conference was not a black radical, but a quintessential member of South Africa's white establishment.

In fact, Gerrit Viljoen once headed the Afrikaner Broederbond, a semi-secret political and cultural group indispensible in the formulation and enforcement of the apartheid system of racial segregation. Now, as the minister in charge of black education, he has come to symbolize the government's determination to move away from at least some facets of past race policies.

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Yet even as Dr. Viljoen's Department of Education and Training (DET) pledges to upgrade black learning, many black students are boycotting classes. Even as the DET builds new classrooms, the students shatter their windows and daub their walls with protest slogans. ``The only way the DET can solve the crisis of black education in this country,'' scoffs one teacher, ``is to collapse, go out of business.''

Less and less does the debate over black education in South Africa involve the three R's. It is -- for all sides -- mainly a political question. It is part of the wider conflict between the government and black opponents over the country's future.

No issue in the struggle over South Africa's future is so agonizing. ``We must not forget,'' says one teacher, ``that the future of a generation of individual children is at stake. . . . Lost time in learning is not something easily made up.''

For Viljoen, the urgent priority is to reverse a quarter century of official neglect in black education. With an increased budget -- up sevenfold since President Pieter W. Botha came to power eight years ago -- Viljoen has unveiled a 10-year program to upgrade black public schooling. His goals are to provide school places for 50,000 new pupils a year; build 60 new schools; hire and train at least 1,500 teachers annually. In the year ahead, more than 3,000 new classrooms are planned for some 300 of the nation's segregated black townships.

But the government remains equally firm in its insistence on racial segregation in the public schools -- one of the pillars of Afrikaner power. And continued separate education is one of the keenest demands of ultra-right whites who have recently begun to raid support from President Botha's government.

Black student militants -- who have, during the past two years of political unrest, increasingly set the pace for black politics nationwide -- say Viljoen's vision of reform is absurd. They argue that South Africa's system of black education remains rooted in apartheid, run and even ``reformed'' by a white minority that they feel is usurping the right of South Africa's black majority to rule. The students are militating for what they term ``people's education.'' They feel the DET's talk of upgrading is almost obscenely irrelevant by comparison.

Viljoen wants boycotting students back in class. So do many black parents and established community leaders, who banded together in the black township of Soweto late last year to form a Soweto Parents' Crisis Committee (SPCC). So, for a while, did the exiled leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the outlawed organization to which most of the various black antigovernment militants here proclaim allegiance.

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By the end of 1985, after SPCC members won an ANC endorsement, the black student boycott was suspended. Early this year, a broader group of concerned parents and educators, the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), moved to bury it altogether while endorsing students' hopes for early moves to put in effect some form of ``people's education'' in DET schools.

Then came the state of emergency -- a determined bid to reexert control over antigovernment blacks, and thus to deflate the challenge from whites on the far right. At least 10,000 people -- almost all black, many children -- have been detained without charge or trial.

Troops were posted at black schools in Soweto and other areas of political unrest. Students were issued new identity tags and ordered to display them so that the authorities could exclude outside ``agitators,'' whom they held responsible for classroom ferment. The message was clear: Black education could and would be upgraded, but it would not be redrawn with the ``people's'' syllabi.

As the boycotts resumed, the authorities got tougher, closing 33 schools in Soweto where students had quit attending. Last weekend, the DET hinted that additional schools, in the eastern Cape province, might also be shut.

The state of emergency has sharpened positions on both sides, undermining advocates of compromise, even advocates of dialogue. ``The security spokesmen within government have a very important role in the issue,'' said an NP source, adding that this was particularly true at a time when the crackdown seems to have broken the momentum of antigovernment militancy. ``So when Viljoen may say to them that he feels the kids can be brought back to school, they may say: `Yes, but how, and why? In order to force their `people's education?' ''

The NECC parents' group, meanwhile, is understood to have sought a clear endorsement from the ANC leadership in Lusaka, Zambia, for moves to get black children back in class. ``Privately, the ANC has been encouraging,'' reports a source who has been in close touch with the NECC. Publicly, however, there has been no loud, clear ANC call for an end to the boycott. A Western diplomat here posits two possible explanations: either the ANC feels it cannot be seen to advocate compromise with the DET in the state-of-emergency political climate; ``or, maybe, the ANC, itself, is divided.''

One educator, involved in a privately funded program to upgrade black schools, fears that boycotts will remain for the foreseeable future. For one thing, the present level of teaching and facilities in black schools seems to offer little incentive for children to defy boycotts. ``The DET, meanwhile, is badly discredited. I happen to feel that many in the DET are unhappy with the ID ruling, and with troops on school grounds. . . . But even if this is so, the fact that the DET lacked the will, or whatever, to come out and say so, was a serious mistake.''

Not all on the black-education front is bleak. Private schools in leafy South African suburbs, once the preserve of privileged whites, have in recent years energetically opened their doors to others. One of them, Woodmead, north of Johannesburg, credibly claims to be completely ``nonracial.'' A recently formed New Era Schools Trust will open a series of further nonracial private schools around South Africa in the coming 18 months. Funded by South African business, the trust hopes to offer full scholarships to at least one-quarter of its students.

US businesses here have attempted a variety of support programs for black students. IBM, for instance, is spending some $10 million over five years to inroduce an English-teaching program using personal computers. The experiment has begun with 14 public schools -- six of them in Soweto, four in Natal Province. Four are in Bophutatswana, one of the controversial black homelands created by the government to ensure separate tribal groupings. But the great majority of black students cannot be accommodated by such programs. For most students, education must come at existing DET facilities. Last in a three-part series that began Oct. 17.

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.

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