Last chance in South Africa?

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OVER the last weekend in Durban, South Africa, a conference of black parents, students, and teachers had a somewhat surprising outcome. There was little doubt about what the mass of more than a thousand blacks wanted to do.

Emotionally, they were in favor of boycotting the entire black educational system and, in effect, taking to the streets. Had the delegates stampeded for the boycott, the level of violence in South Africa would have climbed another notch and the last chance for a compromise solution to South Africa's acute racial tension could have vanished.

They voted to postpone the boycott awhile.

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The slide to violence has been the dominant fact in South Africa since September 1984. That was when the white minority adopted a new constitution granting political participation to Indians and Coloreds (mixed-race persons) but denied participation to blacks.

Since then some 1,400 people have been killed in interracial violence in South Africa, most of them blacks, a few whites.

Before September 1984, racial violence was something that broke out massively but periodically in South Africa. It was not a daily occurrence. Since then it has become almost daily. For example, on March 17 more than 20 died in racial violence. On the 18th, 6 died; on the 19th, 2; on the 20th, 4; on the 21st, 10; on the 22nd, 3; on the 25th, one; on the 26th, 30.

There were 2 each on the following three days.

The death rate was running at an average of 4 a day from the September '84 beginning of daily violence to March 4 of this year, when South African President Botha announced that he would lift the emergency powers, under which the police had been operating in the key black townships. Since then the rate of fatalities has climbed to an average of more than 5 a day.

If the black school community had decreed a total school boycott last weekend, the death rate would certainly have climbed much higher. The school-age community would have taken, happily, to street rioting instead of schooling. The new generation of black youth would have been further radicalized.

The National Education Crisis Committee was organized in 1985 by black parents, teachers, and activists interested in improving black education. A conference of the committee began meeting over the Christmas holiday for a three-month period. The conference also demanded reforms as a condition for continuing to keep the students in school.

During the three months the emergency decree was lifted, but a heavy troop presence in black communities and a ban on student political organizations remain in effect. The conference could easily have voted for resumption of the boycott.

They voted instead to have students return to school for the balance of the year, but called for a three-day national strike around June 16, the anniversary of the Soweto uprising in 1976.

In other words, the leaders of the black educational community in South Africa are offering the Botha regime a further chance to think through its racial policies and come up with progress down the road of dismantling apartheid.

At this juncture when South Africa could turn fatally down the road to violence or pull back and work toward a settlement between white and black communities, many eyes are turned on President Reagan.

The black conference in Durban passed a resolution calling the Reagan administration ``an accomplice in the crimes of apartheid.''

But on March 17 President Reagan, in a report to the US Congress, stated that the policies and actions of South Africa pose ``a threat to the foreign policy and economy of the United States.''

Three days earlier, on March 14, Mr. Reagan declared that the American people believe in human rights and oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the left or right.''

In theory American influence might still make a difference in the pace of change in South Africa.

American policy toward South Africa is still called ``constructive engagement.'' Mr. Reagan's recent words imply something new, different, and more actively and openly opposed to apartheid.

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