South Africa's integrated church schools chop a hole in apartheid

The South African government appears to be backing down cautiously on a key issue: the admission of blacks to the previously all-white private church schools.

The church schools, led by the Roman Catholics, at one stage deliberately defied the government over this. They admitted black pupils in spite of the law , and despite government threats to close them down.

Many hundreds and perhaps several thousand black pupils are now at private schools throughout the country that were completely restricted to whites just two or three years ago. The government has been obliged to accept the situation , which is completely contrary to its apartheid policies.

Now the government has even indicated that legislation will be introduced to "regularize" the situation -- at least to a degree. It has still not capitulated completely, though, and is likely to continue to insist on various restrictions and controls.

The main advantage for the black pupils attending racially mixed schools is the considerably higher standard of education there. At the separate state-run schools for mixed-race, Asian, or African children, the Africans are worst off of the lot -- generally with poorly educated teachers and few modern facilities, if any.

But church schools, sometimes as costly as $3,00 a year, are expensive compared to free state schools.

The formal decision to challenge enforced racial segregation in schools was taken by the South African Catholic bishops in 1976.

The forthright Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley -- probably the least liked by the government of all the Catholic leaders -- said then that it was simply logical that the church should open its schools to all races.

"If the church takes a stand against apartheid -- as it has done -- it must try to live out that stand in all respects, including its institutions," said Mr. Hurley.

Opposition to the move also came from parents, and some white children were withdrawn from the schools. But the schools themselves stood firm, and integration has gone remarkably smoothly.

But there are certain anomalies that could probably arise nowhere else.

For example, one school was barred from using a public swimming pool for lessons because some of the pupils were black and the pool is for whites only. Rather than segregate the lessons, the teacher in charge hired a bus and took the school, class by class, to the other side of town for swimming lessons.

In the end the authorities capitulated rather sheepishly, opening the pool to the school unconditionally.

There have also been occasions when teams from all-white state schools have refused to play teams from integrated private schools.

Because public transport is segregated, black pupils can run into problems when they enter train coaches reserved for whites, or climb on to whites-only buses. But they are usually teated as "honorary whites" as long as they are wearing their school uniforms, and allowed on without a fuss.

On occasions when they were turned away, their indignant white school friends usually walked off as well, in protest.

There has also been a spinoff in increased socializing between the families of children at the racially mixed schools. It is not unusual to see white children playing with black friends in some black suburbs, and vice versa.

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