South Africa bumpily enters new era as school year begins

January 12, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SPRINGS, South Africa -- It was the first day of school yesterday in the new South Africa, but to 13-year-old Zwelakhe Thsabanhgu it looked a lot like the old one.

He was standing outside Springs Boys High School, hoping to be admitted to the traditionally white institution. But despite lofty pronouncements about a new educational openness from the country's black-led government, the best young Zwelakhe could get was an entrance exam.

Springs Boys was a focal point as South Africa's schools bumpily entered a new era. And the problems at Springs Boys seemed to sum up the difficulties of the transition, as they may have been caused by malicious racism or simple confusion, by inevitable growing pains or purposeful sabotage, or by some combination.

"I don't know, I guess it has something to do with racism," Zwelakhe said when he wasn't immediately admitted to the school, though it is the institution closest to where he lives. "I just want to go here because it is so close to my home."

The spotlight fell on Springs Boys after a "sting" operation conducted by a Johannesburg radio station. First, a black reporter asked about getting her child in the school. A receptionist, recorded in the act, responded that the school was full.

A white reporter asked the same question. The same receptionist said admittance would be no problem, that he just had to show up on opening day.

The station was put onto the story by Isabel Govender, who couldn't get her mixed-race son admitted, though she lives only a few blocks away. "I never could get him in before because of that apartheid government," Ms. Govender said. "I thought it would be different now. But it's not. They don't want him because he's black."

Ms. Govender brought her son back to the school yesterday and he, too, was given an admission test.

An obviously pained Andre French, the school principal, tried to explain. "Mistakes were made and I am heartsick about it," he said. "I just hope that we can learn from them."

Mr. French said that while the school has been admitting nonwhites, anyone coming out of the black education system -- recognized as inferior -- has been required to take an admission test to make sure he can handle the school's academics.

Those tests were given in November. When the receptionist talked to the black reporter, she made the mistake of saying there was no room, instead of explaining that it was too late to take the test, said Mr. French.

After the radio station publicized the rules, the school's governing body changed its policy: Now all students, regardless of their background, are tested. Anyone in the school district who shows up is given the test immediately.

"We have been trying to be part of the changes in this country," Mr. French said, pointing to the admission of nonwhites and to various cooperative arrangements with schools in the nearby black township. "We want to do the right thing, but we have not been getting any definite guidelines from above," he said.

Springs Boys High is called Model C school, part of a system designed, in part, to keep the white school structure from being engulfed by the flood of black educational needs.

In Model C schools, the government pays a certain number of teacher salaries. Parents pick up all other costs -- extra teachers, athletics, landscaping, maintenance. The total is about $330 a year for each student at Spring -- putting the school out of the financial reach of most blacks.

This has led to the condemnation of the Model C system by the ruling African National Congress, and its vigorous defense by numerous white parties who argue that these schools, which involve their communities in their children's education, are working well and should be emulated, not destroyed.

Confusing matters on opening day was a last-minute announcement by the Johannesburg-area government that no student would be turned away because of an inability to pay fees.

Many thought Model C schools would be inundated with opening-day applications from impoverished blacks. But that failed to materialize; almost everyone headed for the nearest school, with only a small number of students seeking out these relatively elite institutions.

On the other side of Johannesburg, at Fourways High, there were about 250 blacks among the 1,000 students, up from last year's 100 among the total of 900. Class sizes rose from an average of 30 to nearly 35.

"We think of ourselves as being a school that serves this community," said Andre Botha, deputy principal, explaining that everyone in the area, regardless of race, is welcome as long as there is room. Remedial classes have been added for those needing help to catch up.

So far, a scholarship fund has taken care of all who cannot afford the $800 yearly tuition, but Mr. Botha conceded that he is not sure what the school's legal standing would be if that fund were exhausted and an impoverished pupil from the area demanded admittance.

"That's a bridge we know we will have to cross one day," he said.

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