Schools of Soweto struggle in chaos Apartheid fight leaves bitter fruit of student violence

February 12, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

SOWETO, South Africa -- The windows of Soweto's Tladi High School were smashed in 1988, and today they are jagged reminders of a season of riots from which the school has never recovered.

The revolution that spawned Soweto's violence is moving into another phase, closer to achieving its goals. But Soweto is still wretchedly behind, still caught in its own violence and an abiding compulsion to protest against authority.

The students, poor black youngsters raised in the turmoil of township life, still run a gantlet of thugs and rapists to reach their torn-up classrooms every day.

Last year, only six Tladi students passed the graduation exam, a dismal showing even among black South African schools, where fewer than half of all seniors graduated, compared to 97 percent of whites.

This year, teachers say they expected some improvement in test results, but that was before a group of students expelled Margaret Motapo from the principal's office.

"They manhandled her and told her to get out," says Mysteria Mooki, a teacher at the school. "When we asked why, they just said all the principals were being chased out."

Altogether, about 30 principals were ejected from their offices last month by teen-agers who said they were acting in the interest of the community. Some of the principals were roughed up. Others were followed to their cars by groups of boys who threatened to beat them for failing to heed student demands.

"Principals failed to comply with the demands of the students, the aspirations of the students, the grievances of the students. Hence our own comrades took it upon themselves to take action against principals," said Enoch Morero, a 20-year-old student activist.

He is a local leader of the Congress of South African Students, sponsor of the latest protest, which was aimed at forcing principals to relax school admissions policies and open their doors to all comers, regardless of records or grades.

The expulsions represented the latest round in the long-running school crisis in Soweto, South Africa's biggest township, which sprawls westward from Johannesburg and is home to an estimated 3 million blacks.

For almost two decades, the youngsters of Soweto have disrupted and torn up their schools in the name of the anti-apartheid struggle. They were the vanguard of the revolt that is finally bringing their people to power.

But with victory almost at hand they are still fighting -- protesting, boycotting, even ejecting their teachers from school. Many people say that now they are crippling their generation's capacity to participate in the future.

It all began in 1976 with a massive uprising against "Bantu education," the inferior education provided blacks under a system controlled by apartheid's white establishment. The protests reached new heights in the mid-1980s, when revolutionary forces decided to make the townships ungovernable until apartheid was ended and white authorities stopped suppressing black dissent. The schools became ungovernable, too.

Every year since then, there have been protests of some sort that have left many schools, like Tladi, in chaos and disrepair, and easy prey for criminals and thugs. Principals have little control. Teachers get no respect. The children, empowered by years on the front lines of political warfare, come and go as they please. "Liberation before education" was once their battle cry.

"The historical context is that students were reacting to a situation that was untenable. They took to the streets in order to reject the system," says Lindelwe Mabandla, an education expert with the African National Congress. "In a sense the students, rightly or wrongly, see the classroom as part of the struggle."

Politics of protest

The trouble is, no one seems to know how to shut off the battle in the schools now that the war against apartheid is won.

Black political leaders have been released from jail, their organizations have been unbanned, and the white government is negotiating toward a new constitution and fair elections in which blacks would get a vote equal to whites.

But even those newly freed leaders for whom the students often fought have not been able to persuade them to stop using their school grounds as battlefields. Leaders of the ANC and its Youth League have called on the children repeatedly to stay in school, explaining that educated minds will be needed to help build the new society here. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

"The Youth League is part of the call to go back to school in preparation for liberation," says Youth League president Peter Mokaba, 35, a fiery speaker who frequently exhorts the "young lions" of the struggle to get an education. "But it takes more than a call to put things straight. The politics of protest is now here. . . .

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