Johannesburg — Nathan lives in Soweto. He is fighting for an education -- despite the collapse of state schools in his township; bullying by black radicals; even the recent death of his brother during an incident of political violence. He has less than two weeks left before this year's government matriculation exam, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 25. He fears that he will be barred from the testing center by antigovernment militants, who see the exam as a pillar of South Africa's separate-but-unequal education for different races.
``Still, I have faith,'' says the towering 20-year-old. He wants to study design. Meanwhile, he works as a golf caddy. He shares the militants' unhappiness with the state education system and with exam questions that seem alien to his experience and background. ``But,'' he says, ``I must pass this exam if I hope to go to university. I have devoted all my energies to preparing for the test. I know I can pass!''
Nathan is among some 235,000 blacks nationwide who hope to take the exam. But as the exam nears, they are caught in a political cross fire, between the white-led government and black militants who are battling over the country's future.
About 100,000 of the blacks who hope to take the exam are high school seniors. The others are adults or youths who have failed the test and are trying again as ``private'' candidates. All crave at least the minimal ``school-leaver's certificate,'' needed for a good job amid raging black unemployment and unrelenting population growth. Nearly all share the marks of poverty and years of inferior schooling.
The militants, to the slogan of ``Liberation Before Education,'' have resumed an intermittent boycott in many urban schools. The government, while ruling out the idea of nonracial public schooling, has earmarked a vastly increased sum of some $500 million for upgrading black schools. The declared aim is separate, but equal, education in the decade ahead.
Since imposing a state of emergency on June 12, the government has posted troops at schools, and tightened registration rules, in a bid to excise politics from the classrooms.
Parents are trying to convince the militants that children must stay in school. But, in the chaos left by arrests made under the state of emergency, the moderates have trouble locating, much less swaying, boycott leaders.
Nathan and a small nationwide minority of several thousand other black youths have fled state education in black townships for a growing network of private ``rescue programs'' in white areas. Hundreds of others want to join, say organizers, but cannot be accommodated.
Some programs involve Saturday tutoring for the matriculation exam. Others have blossomed into full-scale schools. They run, but are desperate for funds. The force behind these initiatives is a coalition of concerned educators and university students -- black and white.
Even before the current unrest erupted in the fall of 1984, only about one-eighth of black candidates scored high enough on the state exam to enter university.
A spokesman for the Department of Education and Training (DET), the government body that runs black education, says black schools in many areas continue to function despite boycott calls. But, he says, schools in Soweto, the country's largest black city, and in the eastern Cape Province have been disrupted.
Franz Auerbach, a Soweto-based white educator who has devoted much of his career to black-education issues, says the DET picture is misleading.
Although many primary schools and rural high schools are continuing to function, he says, most black high schools in the politicized urban areas are badly disrupted or virtually inoperative.
At some Soweto schools the boycott is total, and the DET has shut them down. One DET officer in Soweto says that even at the schools where students are still showing up, ``there are two or three functional school periods in the morning. Almost never is there a full day's teaching. Many classes dissolve into complaints about the presence of troops or erupt into the singing of freedom songs.''
Now, ``rescue programs'' in white areas are under fire from militants. About 10 days ago, the Transvaal Students' Congress -- student leaders from the black schools around Johannesburg and Pretoria -- called for the programs to cease.
Nathan was among 100 students who ignored the dictum and showed up Saturday for a once-a-week program at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. Normally, some 300 attend.
``I've stopped going to the library, or carrying books,'' he says. ``You don't know when these [militants] will appear and catch you with books. . . . I study at home and hope I'll be able to write the exam.'' Earlier this year he failed, because of low marks in two of five required ``pass'' subjects: Afrikaans and Zulu. ``I grew up in Swaziland, where we spoke no Afrikaans or Zulu, only Swazi,'' he notes.
In mid-June, he returned from a trip outside Soweto to discover his younger brother had been shot dead. ``I checked with friends of his. It seems he was killed by plainclothes policemen, when he was on his way home from playing soccer.'' The government Bureau of Information, the official source of state-of-emergency reports on political unrest, says it has no record of police involvement in the death.
Nathan says he mourns his brother's death with a renewed resolve to pass the exam, whatever the obstacles.
``Some of my students have been beaten by militants on returning to the townships after school,'' says Lucie Pursell, a white teacher who has founded a school for some 100 black students in a furniture warehouse on the edge of Johannesburg. ``Some of the girl students have been attacked, raped, when seen carrying books.''
One of her pupils met with neighborhood radicals in a bid to ward off intimidation: ``The only way I escaped unhurt was by telling them I would stop studying. Now I leave my books here at school and pretend to be going to Johannesburg for work.''
At a similar, black-run program in cramped Johannesburg offices, the director says, ``We've had to turn away more than 300 students who want to join.'' White private schools have been deluged with requests from blacks for help with preparing for the exam.
Sometimes, says Mrs. Pursell, the obstacles to black education seem unmovable. ``I go to companies for funding. They're very encouraging, until it comes to writing checks. I fear I may have to close, even though I have 300 new students who want to join if I keep going next year.''
This week she phoned the DET with a plea for permission to administer the state matriculation exam at her school, so her students would not risk intimidation in Soweto. ``But they said the exam packets had already been made up, and they couldn't unpack them.''
First in a three-part series. Next: Black Education: The Backlog of Inequality.
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.