The Coloreds in South Africa have become increasingly politicized as the country's racial unrest has grown. And there are increasing signs that the South African government is finding it harder to control events in the sprawling townships for blacks and Coloreds (people of mixed race descent) around Cape Town, the country's legislative capital.
In an unprecedented move on Friday, government authorities shut down nearly 500 schools for Coloreds , banning all staff and students from school premises ``until further notice.''
The action came after 10 days of rioting and violence in Cape Town's segregated districts for blacks and Coloreds. At a funeral for 11 black victims of earlier unrest Saturday, police killed a black man as rioting broke out. This brings to at least 30 the number of people known to have died, most of them shot by the police. Several hundred have been injured. Violence also erupted over the weekend in black townships near Johannesburg and in the eastern Cape Province.
The racial unrest of the past few weeks and what is widely seen as often vicious police reaction to that unrest have spurred the politicization of the Coloreds. For a long time, the Colored community was regarded as the most docile of South Africa's non-white groups, the group to which the whites could turn for help in a showdown between the races.
But Friday's action will tend to heighten the tension, resentment, and frustration already rife in Colored community, according to observers here.
Historically, Colored people -- like most whites -- regarded themselves as ``superior'' to the black African majority. Most Coloreds belong to the same religious denominations as whites and speak English or Afrikaans.
But the ruling National Party government, which came to power in 1948, has alienated this group, which numbers more than 3 million compared to the approximately 5 million whites. In a calculated process, which even many pro-government Afrikaners now regret, the government moved to separate the whites and the Colored people and strictly enforce its policy of apartheid.
One of its first actions was to declare special racial ``group areas,'' giving the whites the best and systematically weeding out Colored people living there. In Cape Town this led to the forced removal of thousands of Colored families from the heart of the city to a desolate sandy area miles away called the Cape Flats. At the same time, the government removed even the extremely limited political rights the Colored people had enjoyed and banned interracial marriages.
Whites were given a rude shock when many young Colored people embraced the Black Consciousness movement and demonstrated their solidarity with black students in the unrest that swept the country in 1976.
Since then, the government has tried to mend its political fences by giving token political representation to the Colored groups. Last year the country's white Parliament approved a bill creating a tri-cameral legislature, providing houses representation for the country's Indian minority (numbering about 850,000) and Coloreds. The nation's 24 million blacks were excluded from the body.
The present Colored unrest in Cape Town is a clear sign that the community rejects this move and wants much more of the political cake now.
Students have been boycotting most Colored and black schools for several weeks as part of a campaign to pressure the government to make political concessions. Instead of routine lessons, some students are organizing political-awareness lectures. One of boycott organnizers was the Rev. Allan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. His arrest two weeks ago, the day before a planned mass protest march, marked the beginning of widespread violence in Cape Town.
A government minister said the reason for closing the schools is that certain schools are ``no longer serving an educational function.'' He said the authorities could no longer ensure the safety of students because of ``disruptive actions and intimidation by an organized minority.''
Teachers have described conditions at the schools as ``chaotic.'' One teacher at a school that tried to continue normal lessons, even though only a third of the pupils turned up for class, said the teachers had received ``countless threats'' and that the staff could use only classrooms at the back of the building, for fear of bombs.
The boycott and the decision to close the schools just two months before the important year-end final examinations throws the education system in the Colored community into serious confusion.
It may mean that thousands of children will have to repeat a year of schooling and this will cause further problems for the Colored schools which are already overcrowded, understaffed, and ill-equipped. It would also mean serious domestic problems for several hundred thousand families whose children now will be left to their own devices every day while the parents are away at work.