School must admit blacks, judge says South African ruling bars racial segregation

February 17, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PRETORIA, South Africa -- In an echo of America's civil-rights struggle, a Supreme Court judge has ordered an all-white public school in a rural community to admit black children whom it had tried to prevent from enrolling.

Judge Theo Spoelstra ruled yesterday that white authorities at Potgietersrus Primary School, which has 764 white pupils in an Afrikaner-dominated town 150 miles north of Pretoria, had violated the country's interim constitution by barring three black students from attending, "on racial grounds."

Government officials said they may deploy police or soldiers next week to ensure the safety of the new students. Last month, a group of khaki-clad whites stood in the doorway to block the three black children from entering and jeered at black protesters and reporters outside.

The case has been compared to the court-ordered desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, when National Guard troops escorted the first black students to school.

The Transvaal Supreme Court class-action ruling marks the first time since South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy nearly two years ago that a court has grappled with whether or how to desegregate the country's still largely separate and unequal school systems.

Under apartheid, the white-minority government spent far more money on education for whites than for blacks in an attempt to provide a supply of cheap black labor for white-owned industries.

Although the policy has been scrapped, vast disparities remain, as most whites and blacks still live in separate communities. That is the case in Potgietersrus, where 13,000 middle-class whites live in town while an estimated 100,000 mostly-poor blacks live in a dusty township nearby.

The challenge came from Magiliweni Alson Matukane, the children's father. An engineer who received his education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Mr. Matukane moved to Potgietersrus last year for his job in the provincial department of water affairs.

After renting a house in a formerly all-white neighborhood, Mr. Matukane and his wife applied to the nearest primary school to enroll their children, ages 8 to 13.

Judge Spoelstra ordered school authorities to admit Mr. Matukane's three children and at least 18 others who had been turned away. The judge also ordered the school to pay the legal costs of the black parents.

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