Behind black school boycott in S. Africa: dissatisfaction with apartheid

Nearly 60,000 black schoolchildren are out of classes here in South Africa, where a continuing school boycott and student unrest has led to the shutdown of nearly 80 schools.

An all-too-familiar cycle is being played out as the boycott widens: Pupils make rapidly escalating demands, the government promises reform and orders them back to school, student demonstrations bring out the police, violence results, and there is bitterness and alienation.

The pattern is similar to that of 1976, when a black school boycott escalated into nationwide violence. The present unrest comes nowhere near the scale of the 1976 uprising, but it clearly has the South African government concerned.

Interviews with a number of pupils, parents, school officials, and community activists in eastern Cape Province -- the area hardest hit by the unrest -- indicate that while dissatisfaction with the educational system may have sparked the current protests, the overriding grievance is the entire system of racial discrimination in South Africa, known as apartheid.

"Everyone in South Africa knows what these kids want," says one high school principal. "The situation in South Africa doesn't end in the classrooms."

The boycott is mainly confined to black students, since an earlier boycott among Colored (mixed race) and Indian pupils has now largely ended. Typically, initial grievances concern local conditions in black schools.

"The classrooms are not big enough. The toilets are filthy," says one 18 -year-old who is boycotting.

Among his other complaints: His school has 12 classrooms for some 650 students, books are in short supply, there is no equipment for teaching science, the rugby and soccer teams share the same jerseys and the same playing field. School authorities earlier prohibited the formation of a students' representative council to voice pupil grievances.

But while conditions in the schools provide targets for protest actions, it appears that the students' grievances go far beyond that. As one analyst puts it, "What's the use of getting new textbooks if the whole educational system isn't changed?"

Indeed, black students make it clear that they reject the system of "Bantu education" imposed on them by the white government in 1953. The educational curriculum was specifically designed so that blacks would not be qualified for -- and therefore would not aspire to -- jobs that would place them in competition with whites.

One student says that even should the government keep its promises of equal education expenditure for all races, "Bantu education will still be there."

"What we are taught is not good quality," he argues.

But, he continues, "The government -- the authorities -- don't want to hear what we say.They make themselves deaf. So this [boycotting] is how we show our power."

And that, in turn, prompts the government to show its power. In the Ciskei black tribal reserve, for example, police have been conducting house-to-house searches for pupils. In the Cape and Orange Free State provinces, literally hundreds of pupils have been arrested. Complaints of police assaults are widespread.

Violence, in the form of stonings and the torching of schools buildings, has flared, resulting in at least four deaths and scores of injuries.

Whether the boycott will spread further -- or dissipate -- remains an open question.

South African authorities blame the unrest on a lack of information about educational improvements the government is undertaking. Government spokesmen say the backlog in classroom construction in black schools will be eliminated by 1985, that black teacher salaries will be increased to attract competent instructors, and that black educational expenditure will continue to grow until it reaches parity with the white educational system.

While community activists predict such government moves may well dampen pupil resentment in the short term, it is hardly likely to provide a lasting solution to the problems of South Africa's embittered black youth.

"These students may be satisfied," says one expert, "but what about the next bunch?"

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.