South African school a double-edged legacy of apartheid's homelands

September 18, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

MMABATHO, South Africa -- The International School of South Africa sits in glorious incongruity in a place that used to be called Bophuthatswana.

Amid the dusty, dry flatlands of the northwest part of South Africa, not far from some of the country's most brutal rural poverty, the school's elaborate, brick campus sprawls across bright green lawns.

They provide the perfect spot for a team of white-flanneled cricketers to practice the art of protecting their wicket.

The question is if this school is a vestige of a corrupt, discredited system or a beacon of light that can shine the way into the new South Africa?

Indeed, its very existence illustrates the double-edged legacy of the so-called independent homelands, one of apartheid's most notorious creations, that have left behind structures which are .. proving useful in building a new country.

Grand illusion

The homelands were apartheid's grand illusion. The idea was to make blacks the citizens of allegedly independent countries, so whites could have South Africa for themselves.

Nowhere was the illusion more complete than in Bophuthatswana, homeland for the Tswana tribe, ruled over by Lucas Mangope,who, in the mold of petty dictators, spent millions building monuments to himself.

The International School of South Africa, which, until July 20, was known as the International School of Bophuthatswana, can easily be seen as just such a monument, an expensive attempt to re-create the playing fields of Eton on the high veld of the northwestern Transvaal.

Mr. Mangope put about $15 million into building and equipping the school, which opened in 1990, then handed it over to a private governing board. His government continued to subsidize at a rate of $1 million to $2 million a year, in addition to paying scholarships for 120 students. This despite the fact that the majority of the school's 470 students come from outside South Africa and its homelands.

"That is our history," said Wilf Stout, the school's founding headmaster. "There is nothing we can do about it. The question is, where do we go from here? Judge us on that, on what we are doing today."

Mr. Stout says that he hopes the new government of the North West Province -- which includes the former Bophuthatswana -- will continue the scholarships of children already in the school, but the board is ready to do without the subsidy, raising its $6,000 tuition and boarding fees by about $150 and increasing enrollment to 600 to make up the difference.

"We have here a center of excellence for South Africa," he said. "If we can turn out two or three people who can make a difference in this country, whether in politics, the arts, whatever field, then its contribution to this country would be invaluable."

He said it "would be a shame to dismantle this for misguided ideological reasons."

But plenty of people are seeking to do just that: Attacks on the school in the local media and in a pamphlet campaign are on the increase.

Mr. Stout is trying to counter with a recruitment campaign designed to attract more South African students to the non-racial school, which has a roughly equal number of blacks and whites.

Headmaster Stout said that he came to Bophuthatswana from a job at England's Cambridge University in 1988 with full knowledge of the homelands' reputation.

No apartheid

"Whatever you say about Bophuthatswana, there was no apartheid here," he said. "There are neighborhoods here where blacks and whites have lived side-by-side for years.

"I thought if I could come here and build a non-racial school, it would be my contribution to the fight against apartheid."

The people who will probably ultimately make the decision about the school's future have to look no further than their own desks to see the mixed legacy.

The new officials of the North West Province work in the government buildings of Bophuthatswana, elaborate palaces celebrating the Mangope era. The government buildings, along with a ridiculously huge stadium, make Mmabatho a monument to homeland excess.

The North West assembly takes up less than a third of the desks in the Bophuthatswana Parliament, solid wood desks made of two types of expensive wood. The building is full of marble and brass, stairways and ramps, elevators and skylights.

But, as Popo Molefe, the premier of the region, points out, at least they have a building to meet in:

"There are some provinces that are starting with nothing. The homeland gave us a fully trained personnel that we can use in the new government."

Mr. Molefe is engaged in a political struggle that also reflects the homeland legacy.

Essentially installed as premier by the national leadership of the African National Congress, though he had no real roots in the area, his leadership has been challenged by his agricultural minister, Rocky Malebana-Metsing.

While Mr. Molefe was coming up in the national ANC, Mr. Malebana-Metsing was at work in Bophuthatswana, eventually helping to lead an unsuccessful 1988 coup against Mr. Mangope.

Recently, Malebana-Metsing supporters have been demonstrating against the Molefe-led government. South African President Nelson Mandela has appointed an ANC commission to look into troubles in the province.

Despite his history of opposition in Bophuthatswana, Mr. Malebana-Metsing also points to the advantages of inheriting its structures.

"It gives us skilled personnel, a developed infrastructure and a culture of people in government taking decisions and implementing them," he said.

"But it also gives us political loyalties that can be divided between the present set-up and the past and problems with the rampant corruption that existed in the past."

The homeland legacy is driven home to Mr. Malebana-Metsing every day as he arrives for work. He must walk past a bust of Mr. Mangope that peers out over the atrium of the agriculture building.

"I am in no hurry to take it down," he said. "It just reminds me of the work we have to do."

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