It was a rare occasion in South Africa. Blacks and whites were meeting privately to find common ways around what they see as one of the government's most disastrous policies: strict separation of the races during children's formative school years.
The gathering brought together teachers, administrators, pupils, sympathetic government school inspectors, and some people simply interested in improving race relations. It was indicative of the steady but small-scale efforts by some in South Africa to encourage greater contact between blacks and whites in the schools. (It was also telling that many preferred their efforts to remain anonymous for fear of negative government reaction.)
Under discussion were programs ranging from private schools that have quietly gone multiracial to black and white schools which have ''linked'' into relationships that include periodic exchanges of students. Their comments showed the purpose, prog-ress, and frustrations of their endeavors:
* ''For a white person at school to meet a black person is very important,'' said a white university student. ''The only blacks we usually come into contact with are domestics.''
But remembering a program aimed at bringing black and white students together during their free time, she added: ''The problem is we forge friendships and then the system works against us. What can we do? We can't go to movies together.'' (Movie houses are segregated in South Africa.)
* ''Our biggest problem in South Africa is that we (blacks and whites) simply do not know each other. And this must start as children,'' said the white founder of a successful multiracial private school.
* ''Children coming together are unlike us as adults,'' said a black school administrator, affirming the importance of blacks and whites getting to know each other at a young age. ''They get acquainted in no time,'' he said.
Speaking of his school's periodic exchanging of students with a white school, he added: ''By the time they leave each other, they have addresses and phone numbers. . . . This kind of linkage must be strongly encouraged.''
* ''The day we spent at (a black school) was the highlight of our school year ,'' said the headmaster of a white school, also in the exchange program.
* ''Our reception was overwhelming,'' recalled a white teacher of the day she and her class spent at a Soweto school. ''By the end of the day it was almost a riot as the black and white children sang songs (of tribute) to each other.''
* ''We were going along very well until one week I was inundated with phone calls,'' noted an official of a multiracial private school in Johannesburg. ''Two of our students had gotten off the bus and walked down the street hand in hand. One was white and the other was Indian.''
The point made by the official of the multiracial school is central to all the efforts in South Africa to bring the races together at school level, while segregation remains the government's policy. It must be done quietly and in a manner that does not draw attention and embarass the government.
Private schools in South Africa are leading the way to more multiracial contact because they are less bound financially to complying with constraints imposed by the government. Although even private schools must register under some racial category, students of another race can apply for admission. Some private schools simply ignore government rulings on who can and cannot attend their schools.
Some see signs the government is growing more tolerant with respect to racial mixing in the schools, although its official policy remains strict separation. The government is certainly aware of private schools that ignore its admission regulations, but sometimes lets them proceed.
One sign of more government flexibility is the exchange program initiated by a group called Isongo in the Transvaal Province. It has the blessing of the government department that administers the black schools, and black government schools are allowed to exchange with white private schools. But so far, white government schools cannot participate.
From the black point of view evident at this meeting, multiracial mixing in the schools is a good idea. But as one black school official noted, ''We frown on people doing things for us. But we're happy to have them do things with us.''