Washington — Thabo won't be going home anytime soon. Returning to South Africa would mean 20 years in jail for agitating against apartheid during the 1970s. The young black man knows the repressive nature of apartheid firsthand. Detained for six months by security police for participating in the South African student movement and then placed on probation for five years, he fled his homeland to avoid reimprisonment.
During his probation, Thabo recalls, ``I had constant visits from the security police. It was harassment of a nature of, `Who do you work with?' [youth activists], `Who are your friends?' `What kind of books do you read?'
``They [security police] came to my house to rearrest me. These police did not know me, so I told them that I was my brother and that I was at school. As soon as they left, I left.''
Thabo was one of an estimated 250,000 to 700,000 South African political exiles, most between the ages of 18 and 24, living in the refugee camps of Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, and Tanzania.
After spending the last 10 years in a camp in Botswana, he is now enrolled in college in the United States as a Bishop Desmund Tutu southern African scholar.
After now Anglican Archbishop Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize 1984, he established the Tutu Scholarship Fund to help the ``best and the brightest'' of those young people forced to flee to prepare for positions of leadership when ``the horror of apartheid is put to rest.''
Thabo, along with 15 others, began college in the United States this month.
Bernice Powell, who directs the scholarship fund, says: ``Many of these young people have not seen their families since they were in junior high school. It is amazing that they are as intact as they are and still have ambition and drive for an education.''
Tests were administered at the refugee camps, and the 16 scholars were selected from a group of 200. The seven women and nine men, ranging in age from 18 to 30, are pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies of their choice in fields including agriculture, engineering, nursing and health administration, communications, economics, computer technology, world history and politics, education, philosophy, art, and literature. The program is administered by the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a nonprofit organization based in New York and Washington, D.C.
Phumzile (full name withheld) was selected as one of the first students to be supported by the Tutu Scholarship Fund. Her story is fairly typical.
After earning a degree in library science at the University of Zululand in South Africa, Phumzile was working toward a second degree in psychology when the Soweto uprisings broke out. She was detained under the Terrorism Act, when she was 24 years old and held in solitary confinement for over a year.
After she was let go, Phumzile returned to school in 1978 and was elected president of the Students Representative Council. Six months later the school was closed by the government and she was expelled. Phumzile applied for a scholarship to study in Lesotho through the South African Council of Churches, only to have her travel document canceled and to be detained once again.
Upon release she fled on foot to Swaziland. She had to leave there because of continued harassment by South African police. By night she walked on to Mozambique, enduring considerable hardship. Brought to the United States through the Tutu scholarship program, Phumzile graduated magna cum laude in psychology from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Now doing graduate work, she says her only ambition is to help the children of Africa.
Ida Wood, who as vice-president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund administered the selection tests for the Tutu scholarships, has been working with southern African refugees since 1977. She says that the benefit to these students studying in the states transcends formal education. ``When I think of education, I don't just think academics. They have to get accustomed to seeing blacks doing things.
``We have the biggest repository of people of African descent of anywhere in the world. We have African people who have gone through the school system and are teaching in the system. We have not made enough of our strength for supplying role models.''
Wood says the dismantling of apartheid ``is coming and there is no way to stop it,'' and these students, ``in order to have a viable country will have to work with all South Africans and not just black South Africans.''
Powell says that if the students selected for the Tutu program are ``any indication of what South Africa has as a people, every effort should be made to develop them as soon as possible.''
The Tutu Scholarship Fund is expected to bring 100 scholars to the states over the next four years to study at 21 universities and colleges.
Upon graduation, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees will help find jobs for them in Africa. Many will return to their country of first exile, while others will go to wherever they find a job. The scholars are required when accepting the scholarship to sign a letter of agreement that says they must return to Africa.
But Thabo says it is his moral obligation and not his signature that requires him to ``help those left behind, to help out with projects in the camps.
``There has to be someone to make the projects go. A lot of youngsters don't have an opportunity for further studies. By having these projects we can give them some type of education.''
Another Tutu scholar, Dipuo, says those familiar with apartheid should act as teachers as well as students. ``The whole world should know what apartheid is. . . . Without anybody understanding what apartheid is, what we are fighting for, it's difficult to fight.
``But our priority is to become educated,'' she says. ``We want every opportunity to exploit this situation and become educated.''
Dipuo's ultimate goal is the same that of her peers: ``To work in a free South Africa.''