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School tries to keep Afrikaans-only status

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As the South African Department of Education tells it, there was a straightforward reason for forcing the Afrikaans-language Mikro Primary School to enroll a group of English-speaking first-graders: In Kuilsriver, a rapidly growing suburb east of Cape Town, there wasn't room for them elsewhere.

But to the white, Afrikaans-speaking parents and officials at Mikro, as well as to Afrikaners and opposition leaders nationwide, the government's move was nothing less than a threat to their culture.

Ever since the start of the school year in January, when 21 English-speaking children showed up, Mikro has been the focus of an emotional national debate about language, education, and even the soul of today's South Africa.

It has also become the center of a high-profile legal battle. The Supreme Court of Appeal, the country's second-highest court, is expected to rule on the case soon.

On one level, the issue is whether a school that wants to teach in one of South Africa's 11 national languages - in this case, Afrikaans - can be forced to accommodate speakers of other languages. But it's clear the case has many layers.

The school is filled with Afrikaners - white descendants of long-ago Dutch settlers. The students who want to enroll are black or mixed race. Some believe the school is using language as an excuse to keep the races separate.

"They maintain that it's about Afrikaans," says Gert Witbooi, spokesman for the Western Cape education department. "We don't think so.... This is one of the apartheid legacies. It's our contention that they want the school to be exclusive to a particular community."

Others see the black-led government as trying to destroy Afrikaans culture - a culture they say should not forever be linked to the apartheid system established by Afrikaners in 1948.

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