THABAZIMBI, SOUTH AFRICA — In this land of vast fields and never-ending sky, the Deo Gloria primary school is tightly enclosed by a barbed-wire fence draped in rough, green netting.
Once, the school opened onto the surrounding farms, where many of the students' parents worked as low-paid laborers. But a few years ago, a new farmer bought the land, which includes the small school plot, and insisted on the fence. He said it was a safety measure. The school said it was a mean-spirited move to wall off its 280 pupils.
The mistrust has only deepened since then. School officials and students suspect the farmer, Johan Pienaar, was responsible for multiple acts of vandalism and a July fire that turned the 20-year-old brick schoolhouse and all of its books into a pile of charred rubble. The farmer, who denies involvement in the destruction, says he now wants the school off his land.
"We hadn't seen this type of oppression under apartheid," says the school's principal, Peter Mosito, standing next to temporary modular classrooms set up on a lawn of red dust.
Across South Africa, farmers, local education departments, and school administrators are debating the future of "farm schools," or public schools on private farmland, trying to balance the rights of landowners and the educational needs of some of the country's poorest children.
It is not just a question of education policy. Many see the issues surrounding these schools, which make up about 13 percent of the country's public schools, as crucial to the new South Africa. How the country manages farm schools, many say, reflects how it is handling the lasting legacy of apartheid.
Most farm schools were built under apartheid by white landowners for the children of their black farmworkers. Depending on who tells the history, the schools were an effort to uplift impoverished black children, or a way to keep them from getting in the way of their parents' labor.
These were - and often still are - the only schools for miles. If a laborer was fired and kicked off the farm, his children would also be forced out of school.
The quality of the school depended on the farmer. "If the farmer was generous, he'd provide all the equipment, the supplies," says Vasco Mabunda of the Nkuzi Development Association, a nonprofit that works for land reform in South Africa. "But there were very few farmers willing to invest."
When the post-apartheid government came into power in 1994, these schools were still on private land and in poor shape. Many had no electricity or running water, some even lacked toilets. But they were often the only educational choice, with no other school or public land for miles, and no public transportation.
In 1996, the government ordered farm owners and the provincial education departments to sign contracts outlining responsibility for the schools - who was to do maintenance, for instance, and how the provinces could lease school properties. These agreements would also prevent farmers from closing schools on a whim.
If farmers refused to agree to these contracts, the law said, the government could take the land by force - a potentially explosive possibility. In South Africa, many white farmers have looked with fear at the recent, violent farm seizures in neighboring Zimbabwe.
"Land is a very sensitive issue in this country," says Nobuntu Mbelle, who wrote a 2004 Human Rights Watch report on farm schools. "You even mention land and warning bells and signals and everything start going."
But despite the law, no land has been taken, and few formal contracts exist.
School officials tend to blame farmers, saying landowners are loath to sign agreements because they want the flexibility to kick students off their land. Farmers say the local education departments have defaulted on lease payments and maintenance work, and say it is the government that is balking.
"The farmers are quite willing to help," says Bennie van Zyl, chief director of the Transvaal Agricultural Union, an organization of commercial farmers. "But the departments do not want to sign the contracts. The farmers believe they are using it as an excuse to later expropriate the land."
Meanwhile, thousands of farm schools remain as decrepit as they were under apartheid.
For instance, Rachel Mchasha, a teacher at a 50-student farm school in the northern part of South Africa, says her building hasn't been painted in years and still has no electricity.
"It is a very tough situation to teach in," she says. "If you have electricity, you can use the computer, you can use other resources like videos, television. The children, they are very, very isolated from the outside world."
The farmer who owns the land has not signed a contract with the department of education, she says.
The 2004 Human Rights Watch report points out various problems with farm schools' facilities. It notes how children often have to walk for miles to get to the schools, and how some farmers have blocked off shortcuts. A local researcher working on a separate study says he visited a school recently where the farmer had planted crops in the path leading to the school building and threatened to store chickens in one of the classrooms.
At a May conference on rural education, national school officials called farm schools one of the most pressing educational concerns in the country. But Ms. Mbelle, of Human Rights Watch, says she doesn't see much progress.
"Until the first piece of land is expropriated, we won't see anything," she says.
The local government has said it might have to try to take farmland where the Deo Gloria school sits.
After the fire, Mr. Pienaar, the farmer, blocked access to school grounds, calling it unsafe. The education department got a court order that forced him to allow students and teachers back onto the land, and to provide the temporary classrooms and around-the-clock security guards.
There is still no farm school contract between Pienaar and the education department, and both sides blame the other for the failing. Pienaar has said that Deo Gloria should no longer exist and that the students, many of who walk as many as 10 kilometers to attend classes, should go to another school.
But students like 13-year-old Kegomoditswe Clementine say they love Deo Gloria, and say the temporary classrooms are at least better than the older, vandalized school building. They hope that they might even get electricity soon.
"This school is great," Kegomoditswe says, standing outside the temporary classroom, yards away from the school outhouses. "I am enjoying it here. I like how they teach us."