Johannesburg — A professor at a Johannesburg university noticed one day while walking across campus that most students were clustered in single-race groups. But there was one mixed group. Upon inquiry he learned that all of them were graduates of the same preparatory school: Woodmead.
Steyn Krige, founder, first headmaster, and now board member of Woodmead, tells this story often. He believes a radical new approach to education is ''one of the very few remaining chances at a peaceful solution (to racial strife) in South Africa.''
Education has been, and remains, a flashpoint of black discontent with the white minority government of South Africa.
Something of a maverick, Mr. Krige is an Afrikaner whose ancestry dates to this country's early Dutch settlers. But he has come to reject completely South Africa's racially segregated school system.
''What has bedeviled South Africa is the almost total lack of communication between the races,'' Krige says. ''And as long as this is continued at the school level, we'll never solve our problems.''
In 1969 Krige and a group of 70 or so other ''concerned South Africans'' met to start a new private, interracial school for students aged 13 through high school graduate.
Woodmead, the school north of Johannesburg which grew out of their discussions, has become, in his view, the model for a desperately needed educational initiative in South Africa.
So successful has the school been in its aims of breaking down race barriers and teaching its students to ''think for themselves'' that Krige plans to open four similar institutions in other parts of the country. All will be part of a chain called ''new-era schools.''
Before his experience with Woodmead, Krige was headmaster at a distinguished private school that admitted a few blacks. But such schools have a long tradition of ''whiteness,'' he says. Dropping some blacks into them has the effect, perhaps unintentionally, he concedes, of turning these children into ''little white men.''
Government schools in South Africa are strictly segregated and run in an authoritative manner, with great emphasis on rote learning. Teachers at Woodmead use a thematic approach, ignoring rigid syllabuses used in most South African schools.
Woodmead refuses to comply with a government policy requiring that blacks apply for official permission to attend white schools. For each of the last five years, its student body of 260 has averaged more than 50 percent nonwhite. So far the government has turned a blind eye to the school's admissions policy.
In educational terms, Mr. Krige says Woodmead has sought to ''turn out children with self-discipline, who can think for themselves, and who have insight.''
''We have a marvelously relaxed atmosphere, but it's not an undisciplined atmosphere,' he says.
Woodmead's academic results have been ''very good,'' according to the present headmaster, Pieter Nixon. Over the past four years only two students have failed to pass their matriculation exams, and some two-thirds of the graduates have gone on to university.
There have also been successes on the racial front.
''To Woodmead kids, race stops having any meaning,'' says Krige. He relishes the uphill battle of spreading that consciousness among more of South Africa's young adults.