South Africa has avoided, for the moment, a severe internal crisis and the possibility of an escalating conflict. By conciliating striking Colored (mixed race) schoolchildren and their elders, Prime Minister P. W. Botha has managed to end a growing boycott of schools without the riots and repression which accompanied the protests of school children in Soweto in 1976.
Those disturbances cost about 700 lives, and deepened the bitterness of blacks in South Africa. In the boycotts of this April and early May as many as 100,000 Colored and black schoolchildren had stayed away from school. Their spokesman said that they were protesting the inferiority of education for Coloreds as compared to education provided for whites. In terms of average per capita expenditures, the government of South Africa (which controls and pays for almost all education in the country) spends about $900 on each white child, $300 for each Colored, and $75 for each African.
These systems of differential education are of long standing. African and Colored classes are larger than those of whites, and many are held in inferior buildings. Textbooks are not equal in quality. Nor is the preparation of the teachers. Their salaries are vastly different. The results, in terms of common national examinations, betray the differences in overall educational quality.
Prime Minister Botha is the first white leader publicly to recognize the disparity. He recently called the grievances of the Coloreds "justifiable." He said that he would order an investigation of educational discrimination. Moreover, he promised to consider the possibility of creating a unified national system of education, irrespective of color.
If such a system were soon created, and administered without regard to color, in the South African situation it would constitute a significant departure from the canons and practices of apartheid. Separate development in South Africa has , since the late 1940s, if not before, provided different kinds and qualities of schools for the African, Colored, and Asian peoples of the country. Yet Prime Minister Botha did not imply, and his consideration of a new system does not encompass, mixed education. A unified administration would not (at least initially) mean desegregation in the classroom.
Even if the boycott by schoolchildren lingers, and not all students return to their classes immediately, it is a signal event in the tense atmosphere of South Africa when a tough-speaking prime minister agrees to listen to and possibly act upon grievances to which he, himself, has given the label legitimate. That has happened only rarely in recent South Africa.
Botha may have been motivated by an appreciation of the harm of educational discrimination. Or he may have been influenced by the fact that the boycott was spreading from Coloreds to Africans, and then to their teachers. There were also a few strikes by sympathetic white university students. The military may have urged him to conciliate rather than repress. Further, the example of Zimbabwe is on many minds in South Africa.
Botha may also have been conscious of two other flashpoints: the forcible removal of Coloreds from their long-time urban home in District Six, a part of Cape Town; and the recent dissolution of the Colored Representative Council, the leaders of which had opposed government policy and spoken out against discrimination.
Botha's words and actions may provide a model for South Africa in the early 1980s. They can do so if they begin the kinds of discussions which have for long been earnestly requested by Colored and African political spokesmen. But if the government does little, and the Colored students feel themselves betrayed , then renewed boycotts are possible. Botha spoke impressively last autumn about the need to improve conditions for all in South Africa. But in this spring's session of his parliament, no new legislation has been introduced which implements the hints and promises in his earlier speeches. This time Coloreds and Africans may not be so patient.