Johannesburg — Warning flags are flying in South Africa's black schools. Although black education specialists are not predicting a repeat of the 1976 Soweto riots, which were sparked by education issues, they see some all too familiar patterns in the current turmoil.
The most worrisome warning flag is that white government authorities and those pressing for change in the black education system, including students, seem to be talking past each other, these analysts say.
Hardly a week goes by without reports of trouble in South Africa's black schools and universities. The incidents are serious enough that in most cases police are called in to restore order. Arrests are common, as are school closures.
In each case the spark that sets off unrest is some local circumstance. But the conflicts commonly focus on sour relations between students and school authorities. Students often boycott classes when they are displeased about some aspect of school policy, school officials react with stronger discipline, the situation escalates, and the school becomes a battle ground.
The Bopaganang secondary school in South Africa's Cape Province was closed last week after disturbances there led to 31 arrests and a student march on the local police station. Also last week, the black University of the North was stormed by police to disperse students who had been boycotting classes to protest the dismissal of other students.
These disturbances follow recent trouble at two Soweto secondary schools. Students at Ibhongo high school boycotted classes in protest over the appointment of a white principal, leading to the detention by security police of some students and further boycotts. Eventually, the principal withdrew.
A similar chain of events took place at the Progress secondary school in Soweto over student dissatisfaction with some white teachers.
South Africa's Department of Education and Training, which administers black schools, calls the disturbances ''sporadic'' and ''isolated.'' The police have characterized the unrest as prompted by troublemakers. But blacks close to the schools see it differently.
''These are warnings,'' says Tamasanga Kambule, a university professor who formerly was a Soweto school headmaster.
''These sporadic happenings are just signs that education (for blacks) is unhealthy. If heeded, much could be done. But the authorities are always seeing it as troublemakers.''
Ezekiel Mphahlele, founder of the Council for Black Education and Research, also sees continuing turmoil. ''It has a lot to do with the '76 atmosphere. Students have realized the power to boycott. It's a limited power because eventually the authorities just close down the schools. But it is a power to express resentment,'' he says.
According to Mr. Mphahlele, what is resented is that education remains strictly segregated in South Africa. And blacks see no signs that the white government intends to make their inferior education system equal to that enjoyed by whites.
Beyond this basic flaw, friction often arises from the way the system is administered. Schools are often regarded as extensions of the state, Mphahlele says. They are run in an authoritative manner by civil servants, and students often feel they are being ''monitored'' by the government through the schools.
Mphahlele suggests this may be behind some black students' resentment and suspicion of white teachers and principals. The feeling that teachers and principals are ''functionaries'' of the system means students and school officials are perpetually ''at daggers drawn,'' Mphahlele says.
Whites in South Africa seem perplexed by renewed trouble in black schools. Among whites, there is a widespread perception that the government has made substantial improvements in black education since 1976.
In some respects it has. There has been an energetic building program of new black schools. This year 28 new primary and 30 new secondary schools are planned. Black enrollments have jumped sharply since 1976. The qualifications of black teachers are being upgraded.
But is the quality of education better? ''No way,'' says Mphahlele. The government's approach is toward ''containing confrontation, rather than improving the quality of education. It's a negative solution,'' he says.