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Thousands of South African black pupils stay away from school

By Humphrey TylerSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1981



Cape Town

Several thousand pupils at African schools in Cape Town and the the eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth are boycotting classes despite appeals from the government, from their paretns, and even from their own student organization. They are boycotting even through more than 3 million African pupils in other schools around the country are back in class at the start of the new term.

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The boycott started in April last year when pupils of mixed race -- so-called Colored people -- protested inadequate facilities and what they termed inferior, second- rate black education.

Indian children came out in support, and so did African pupils in pockets round the country, but the strongest support came in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. At one stage about 200,000 pupils were affected.

But when the Colored and indian pupils decided that it would be good tactics to go back to school in May because of the promises they had from the government of reforms in the education system, the African pupils continued to boycott class. At year's end, more than 50,000 were still out of school.

There was a certain amount of violence. Some schools were damaged by fire, and teachers were threatened. Some anxious parents sent their children away to schools in the country areas.

The security police became involved, and various people were arrested and held without trial. Sixteen teenagers in the Western Cape are still in detention.

Now one of the most insistent demands of the bycotting students is that these 16 should be released, and many people believe the boycott would have run out of steam if these youngsters had in fact been freed.

The government has tried various means to try to get the pupils back to school. It has held fresh elections for "school committees" and tried to negotiate with parents. But while the parents generally seem to favor a return to school, the pupils themselves will not budge.

One of the reasons is the breakdown of parental control in the black townships. In most families, both parents work. Often they leave home around 6 in the morning and return about 7 at night. During the day the children are left to their own devices.

Nor are all the pupils involved "children." It is not unusual to find teen-agers in even the very low school grades in African schools, and young men and women over 20 in the senior schools.

Now opposition politicians are urging the government to release immediately the 16 pupils who have been in detention for several months, and to talk directly to representatives of the students themselves, instead of trying to work through the school committees and the parents.

Meanwhile the pupils are taking a tough line.Several headmasters have received death threats from a group calling itself the Black Eye. One letter says, "We know that [Prime Minister P. W.] Botha is your god. Now it is time you look after your nation. . . . In order not to lose your life you are to exclude yourself from the government. The government has used you as tools. . . . Brothers and sisters of Azania, let us come together because we do not want you to lose your life." Azania is the African nationalist term for South Africa.

While the boycott continues at the Cape schools, several government spokesmen have indicated that they realize how necessary it is to improve the education facilities for Indians and Colored pupils as well as Africans. The amount to be spent on school buildings for Colored children is to be doubled this year, and millions more are to be spent on new schools, including technical schools, for Africans.

There are also plans to upgrade the pitifully low standard of education of the teachers themselves in black schools, and to reduce the glaring discrepancies in pay between black and white teachers.

It is now government policy to provide equal educational facilities for children of all races. But it has a long way to go. And there is no firm sign yet that the government will combine the racially separated education departments into one, as blacks want.