Black youths -- vanguard of protest here since the mid-1970s -- have begun easing a school boycott that has worried both the white government and the students' parents. But the boycott, which illustrates the complexities on both sides of South Africa's escalating racial conflict, may not be over for good.
It appears that most of Soweto's 250,000 students returned to class Tuesday, a date -- three weeks after the official start of the school year -- agreed on by black political groups. But, there were at least isolated holdouts among students attending schools in Soweto and other black townships.
The political violence that has plagued South Africa for the past 18 months continued on Tuesday. Police said there had been five deaths in the previous 24 hours. One victim, according to local press reports, was a youth who was shot when police clashed with students meeting Monday to discuss the boycott.
A main catalyst in the Soweto students' return to class was the recently formed Soweto Parents' Crisis Committee (SPCC). The committee outflanked radical opponents -- who led the boycott to the refrain ``Liberation before Education'' -- by traveling to Zambia last month to enlist support from South Africa's most powerful black opposition organization. This organization, the African National Congress, has been based abroad since the South African government banned it in 1960.
The SPCC, however, led its back-to-school campaign by linking its call for ending the boycott to demands it wants met by the end of March. If not satisfied by then, the SPCC says, it will reconvene and reconsider. Since Soweto is country's largest township, satisfying students demands there could set the pattern for other townships too. But SPCC officials complain they have had no government feedback on the demands since announcing them in late December.
The demands reflect the extent to which schoolyard grievances have come to mesh with wider political issues since a Soweto student protest in 1976, that was sparked by the use of Afrikaans instead of English in black schools, spawned months of general unrest.
The SPCC demands include:
Repair of damaged facilities at black schools.
Release of students and teachers detained by the authorities in recent months.
Legalization of the Congress of South African Students, COSAS, a group formed in the wake of the 1976 student crisis.
Lifting of the state of emergency imposed in many black areas last year.
Few people, black or white, seem to expect all the demands to be met. And, according to one Soweto youth associated with Nobel peace laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, ``Come the end of March, Tutu and the other moderates will have little choice but to go along with pressure for a renewed boycott.''
The parents' hope -- though they don't say so outright -- is that mere inertia may help keep children in school. One woman working at a food store in Soweto says, in words few parents anywhere can fail to recognize: ``Children are better off in school than just loafing around.''
An odd mix of other residents of Soweto agrees.
Brig. Gen. Jan Coetzee, the white police chief, assails what he calls a ``minority of black youths who have been using every possible form of violence and intimidation'' to keep kids out of the classroom and on the streets.
One 20-year-old black youth outside Orlando High School -- where the 1976 violence began, as police fired on demonstrators, killing two of them -- says he opposes the boycott. ``When it gathered force last year, I was in Form Four. I would have been in form five, only two years from a degree. Without the degree, I can't get a good job. Now I have to start with Form Four again. I lose from what COSAS demands.''
But only yards away, another teenager sounds a different note. Speaking inside the school -- a cluster of one-story buildings with corrugated iron roofs and broken window panes -- the youth says: ``You can't negotiate with people with closed ears. The only solution is violence.''
A third voice -- belonging to a student named Matthews Ratsebo who wants to go back to school, graduate, and become a lawyer -- sounds a middle of the road approach. Yes, the boycott may risk hurting the blacks, themselves. But the grievances it represents are genuine. They start with simple things, says Ratsebo, like the need for the government to refurbish and upgrade black schools.
``Look inside this school. Look at the roofs, the windows! This is not a proper school.''
Most in Soweto agree that the boycott has been powered largely by the fervor of a minority. Some black parents echo Brigadier Coetzee's charges that this minority has intimidated others. ``These kids go door to door,'' one mother says. ``They have knives.''
But Coetzee estimates that, for whatever reason, as many as 20,000 Sowetan youngsters seem to feel at least some degree of empathy with the activists.
One white with a quite different job in Soweto -- running a privately funded training program for black teachers -- senses the school crisis may be far from over. Franz Auerbach says it could be ``a very volatile year.''
One reason is that June is the 10th anniversary of the clash between police and protesters near Orlando High School -- a clash that, to most of the blacks then and since, has seemed a case of cold-blooded murder.
``A lot of pupils,'' says Auerbach, ``will wish to find ways of commemorating the anniversary of what was a very important and traumatic event.'' He adds: ``Undoubtedly it is the case that what happens in the schools will be, to a great extent, what happens generally'' in South African politics in the months ahead.