JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — As the South African Department of Education tells it, there was a straightforward reason for forcing the Afrikaans-language Mikro Primary School to enroll a group of English-speaking first-graders: In Kuilsriver, a rapidly growing suburb east of Cape Town, there wasn't room for them elsewhere.
But to the white, Afrikaans-speaking parents and officials at Mikro, as well as to Afrikaners and opposition leaders nationwide, the government's move was nothing less than a threat to their culture.
Ever since the start of the school year in January, when 21 English-speaking children showed up, Mikro has been the focus of an emotional national debate about language, education, and even the soul of today's South Africa.
It has also become the center of a high-profile legal battle. The Supreme Court of Appeal, the country's second-highest court, is expected to rule on the case soon.
On one level, the issue is whether a school that wants to teach in one of South Africa's 11 national languages - in this case, Afrikaans - can be forced to accommodate speakers of other languages. But it's clear the case has many layers.
The school is filled with Afrikaners - white descendants of long-ago Dutch settlers. The students who want to enroll are black or mixed race. Some believe the school is using language as an excuse to keep the races separate.
"They maintain that it's about Afrikaans," says Gert Witbooi, spokesman for the Western Cape education department. "We don't think so.... This is one of the apartheid legacies. It's our contention that they want the school to be exclusive to a particular community."
Others see the black-led government as trying to destroy Afrikaans culture - a culture they say should not forever be linked to the apartheid system established by Afrikaners in 1948.
They see a nationwide trend of government officials pressuring Afrikaans schools to accept English speakers. About 3 percent of the country's public schools teach only in Afrikaans. But the schools that open up to English speakers tend to lose their distinct culture, experts say.
Some also wonder why the 21 English-speaking children in Kuilsriver weren't sent to a nearby school that already teaches in their language. "This kind of thing has been happening all over the country," says Will Burger, a professor of Afrikaans literature at the University of Johannesburg. "It is simply unfair. If the government is really serious about the idea of education in one's native tongue, this kind of thing shouldn't happen."
Language in schools has long been a sensitive topic here. Under apartheid, the government forced all schools to teach in Afrikaans. That move wrecked black students' academic performance and was seen as an attack on black culture. In 1976, students in Soweto protested against the school language law and were attacked by police. Hundreds of students died during protests that year.
After the end of the racially repressive system in 1994, the South African Schools Act gave schools the right to choose their language. Other laws give students the right to education in their mother tongue.
But the vast majority of students in South Africa are taught in English. Many speakers of other African languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa, want their children to learn English, the language of business and government here. While few say Afrikaans is at risk of extinction, many Afrikaners worry about the future of their literature and culture.
Kuilsriver was once a heavily Afrikaans area. But the suburb is growing by about 48,000 people a year, many of them non-white, says Melvyn Caroline, the district's director of education. And school construction has not kept up.
But some surveys show that the number of Afrikaans students in the area is growing more than the number of English-speakers, says Erhard Wolf, head of the governing body of Mikro Primary.
It was in this environment that Julia Du Preez, a black English-speaker, tried to find a school for her 6-year-old, Grant. She first tried to enroll him in the dual-language De Kuilen Primary School, about a kilometer from Mikro. But De Kuilen told her there wasn't space. When she tried Mikro, it rejected her application, saying there was not enough space or money to create an English track. Then the government stepped in, announcing that black and mixed-race English-speaking children would be able to attend.
The school objected. It had already struggled to create enough space for the Afrikaans-speaking children. If the school had to add an English group, officials said, there would be more than 40 students in each Afrikaans classroom.
But the government and the new families said these were weak excuses. "The black middle class is moving into the area," Ms. Du Preez says. "They see us as a threat. I don't know why."
A judge in Cape Town agreed with Mikro, but he allowed the students to stay until the end of the year, or until there was another place for them. Now the appeals decision is pending.
Mikro has tried to make the 21 new students feel welcome, and Du Preez says her son, unaware of the controversy, is "very happy at the school." Mr. Caroline says the school's actions are tough on the English-speaking students, "but they are prepared to walk this road for the future."