Johannesburg — A sense of deja vu is growing in South Africa, as thousands of this country's schoolchildren join in protesting the educational system here. The government -- as it did during similar protests in 1976 -- is responding with threats, police force, and arrests of prominent black leaders.
This time, the issue is "inferior education at schools for Coloreds [people of mixed race]." Colored students in the Cape Province started a school boycott, which quickly spread through the country's remaining three provinces.
So far, black pupils have not joined in the protests, although they were in the forefront of the 1976 demonstrations that led to widespread rioting.
In some areas, Indian children have joined in the boycott. And students at two "white" universities have boycotted lectures and organized sit-ins in support of the Colored pupils.
The South African police, in some areas, reportedly have tear-gassed the unarmed students and charged them with batons. Some parents claim their children were clubbed even after they had fallen to the ground. Police have denied the charges.
The government also has arrested four prominent activists in the black consciousness movement, which was founded by the late Steve Biko (who died in police custody). They are Curtis Nkondo, former president of the Azanian People's Organization (azapo), Trevor Wentzel, a local AZAPO official in Cape province, Achmad Cassiem, former president of the South African Students' association (also founded by Mr. Biko), and Michael Sedgwick, a researcher at the University of Cape Town's center for inter-group studies. Azania is the African nationalist name for South Africa. In addition, four other students and teachers have been arrested.
Mr. Nkondo, a former teacher who resigned in protest over the "inferior" education given to black pupils, was arrested just after making a speech at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
"We want good education now," said Mr. Nkondo, adding that if such a demand "means I am to be incarcerated, let that come in a few minutes."
In fact, it did. Mr. Nkondo was hustled into detention after a two-hour police search of his home. He reportedly is being held under the General Law Amendment Act, a broadly drawn law that provides for detention without trial and "banning." (A banned person can be prevented from joining organizations, meeting with more than one other person at a time, or being quoted in a newspaper.)
The minister responsible for Colored education, Marais Steyn, has blamed the students' protest on "outside agitation" and warned pupils to go back to classes or risk having their schools closed.
The government also blamed "outside agitation" for the 1976 school protests in the big black township of Soweto, which set in motion a period of black unrest that left 575 dead, 3,907 injured, and some $55 million in damage.
However, some organizations have been warning the South African government for months that the Colored educational system was on the verge of collapse. Nine months ago, Colored schools were found to be plagued by teacher shortages, inadequate facilities, poor academic standards, and overcrowding, says Ralph Peffer, vice-president of the Transvaal (province) Regional Educational Committee.
And the government's own figures indicate wide disparities on the amount it spends to educate pupils of different races.One report indicates each white high school student receives over 50 percent more in government education funds than his Colored counterpart, and over 500 percent more than a black student.
"Virtually all legislation regarding race relations is separationist and seen by blacks and Coloreds as unjust and discriminatory," wrote Justice P. M. Cillie in explaining the causes behind the 1976 unrest. His report also criticized police and education officials for intransigence and ill-preparedness in dealing with the students' grievances.
Now, nearly four years later, a number of black leaders say the government still has not learned the lessons of 1976 -- and cites its response to this week's boycott as proof.
The student boycott originally was planned to end this week. But some students, hardened by police action and government threats, now say they will stay out of school indefinitely until their demands for "educational equality" are met.
Some 500 parents meeting in one area of Soweto sent Mr. Steyn a message warning against further threats against the students. "Jackboot tactics are not conducive to peaceful change in South Africa," they said.
And Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said of the arrests of black leaders, "One would have hoped that we had learned from past experience that it will not do to remove critics of the system. It does not solve anything."