The ABCs of post-apartheid South Africa

25 years ago, forced use of Afrikaans in black township schools sparked unrest. Now the language struggles.

The walls of the cheery preschool classroom at the Alma Mater Akademie in Krugersdorp, near Johannesburg, are covered with words 3-year-olds the world over learn: colors, numbers, animals.

But the 20 or so blond children who sit waiting for their midday snack are part of one of South Africa's new educational trends. Unheard of a decade ago when the National Party ruled, new private Afrikaans-language schools like the two-year-old Alma Mater are opening around the country, catering to a growing group of well-off Afrikaans families concerned about the decline in public education and the growing dominance of English.

Twenty-five years ago, black students in Soweto rose in protest over government efforts to force the use of Afrikaans, the language of white Dutch settlers, in black township schools. Now the tables have turned, linguistically speaking. Eight years into the new South Africa, the growth of schools like Alma Mater reflects a growing fear in the Afrikaans community that their language will be lost.

"Parents feel that the state schools are no longer offering an adequate education for the Afrikaans-speaking people," says Simon Lee, a spokesman for the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA), the country's largest association of private schools. "A lot of Afrikaans people are concerned that their culture will be overwhelmed completely by English, and that their language will disappear."

In South Africa, which now has 11 official tongues, control of language, especially in education, has long been highly politicized. During the apartheid era, the government tried to enforce the use of Afrikaans as the country's primary language, requiring its use in black schools and in government.

The issue ultimately became the tinder that ignited the anti-apartheid movement, after police fired on elementary school students marching June 16, 1976, to protest a new law requiring use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. More than 700 people died in the riots that engulfed the country over the next four years.

Nelson Mandela's government, which came to power in 1994, gave the country's 11 languages equal status and allowed students to choose the first language in schools.

English flourished under the new system and has been embraced by many families who were forced during the apartheid era to study in Afrikaans or languages native to Africa. In the private school sector, the trend in black communities is toward foundation of small independent schools that emphasize English.

Meanwhile, Afrikaans-speakers are clinging to their linguistic tradition. In 1991, South Africa had no independent Afrikaans-language schools. Today, ISASA has 17 Afrikaans schools as members, and Mr. Lee says there are likely a number of other fledgling schools around the country that are unaffiliated.

For parents, these new schools offer an educational option that didn't previously exist. Their children can receive the benefits of a private education - with smaller class sizes and more individual attention - in the Afrikaans language, which developed from 17th-century Dutch.

"I think it's quite important for the kids to receive their basic education in their mother tongue," says Johann Van Zyl, a banker who sends his three small children to Alma Mater. "But the most important thing is the quality of the standards at the school."

While parents like Mr. Van Zyl want their children to be taught in Afrikaans, they also recognize that English has become the universal language of South Africa and a major international form of communication. Most of the new Afrikaans schools heavily emphasize English, with some, like Alma Mater, even requiring students to take their graduation exams in English

"We know that we're in South Africa, in Africa, and in the rest of the world. We have to give your children something that they can take into the rest of the world because they're not going to be in Krugersdorp for the next 50 years," says Fanie Vermaak, director of Alma Mater. Mr. Vermaak estimates that as many as 50 percent of his students may eventually live or work abroad.

Henri Venter, rector of the Helpmaaker Kollege, an 80-year-old Afrikaans high school in Johannesburg that went private in 1994, says private Afrikaans schools face an uphill battle because no tradition of private education exists in the Afrikaans community.

"It's not in the Afrikaans culture to go to a private school, because the government schools were so good," Mr. Venter says. "The tradition among a lot of Afrikaans families that do send their children to a private school is to send their children to an English school. The fallacy still exits that if you educate your children in English you will be a better citizen."

Still, many of the new Afrikaans schools are reporting huge enrollment in- creases. Alma Mater's enrollment jumped from 74 students to over 150 in one year, and they expect to double that figure next year. At Laerskool Jan Celliers, a private elementary school in a Johannesburg suburb, enrollment has risen from about 220 in 1993 to more than 420 today.

Attracting non-white students to Afrikaans schools remains difficult, and many school administrators voiced concern about the lack of diversity in their schools. Few black families can afford the $1,200 to $2,500 annual tuition that most of these schools charge, and those who can largely choose to send their children to English schools.

"It's not going to work to have no children of color," Mr. Vermaak says.

"When they leave here, how are they going to deal with Indians, blacks, and Coloreds?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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