The political battleground between the South African government and militant black youths is shifting with the new year from the street to the schoolroom. Hit hard by state-of-emergency arrests and by curbs on public protests, black leaders have moved in recent days to end a long boycott of segregated state schools - and press to institute a system of ``people's education'' there. The government, however, hit back yesterday by giving new powers to school administrators to head off any such campaign.
The new rules give the Department of Education and Training (DET), the body in charge of black schools, the right to ban antigovernment slogans, T-shirts, and literature. Also covered by the bans are any courses not explicitly approved by Pretoria.
The new rules reflect the government's resolve to press its six-month-old counter-assault on black political unrest. They also reflect a parallel concern that antigovernment militants may try to redirect their activities from the streets to other areas - such as the schools.
Indeed, the state of emergency seems to be forcing black militants into a shift of strategy. In contrast with the picture at the beginning of 1986, relatively few activists can now be heard to predict that ``liberation'' is around the corner. Instead, they emphasize that any unseating of white political domination will entail planning, patience, time, and the need to guard against a flagging of antigovernment morale.
Some aspects of the altered approach cannot be reported under recently tightened curbs on reporting. But one sign of this change is that many former advocates or supporters of the black student boycott have begun to stress the need for black youngsters to return to school - to fight segregated education from within.
The government, though welcoming an end to black student boycotts, has served notice it is equally determined to keep politics out of the classroom. If the back- to-school trend continues despite the new regulations, black students are due to return from summer break on Jan. 7.
The main focus of the school boycotts has been the black city of Soweto outside Johannesburg, and turbulent black townships in the Eastern Cape Province. In many rural areas, school has gone on more or less as usual.
Earlier state-of-emergency restrictions on political activity in black schools - and the posting of troops in some schoolyards - did bring a number of students in boycott areas back to class. But once there, they often spent more time in political debate or protest than on a government-determined syllabus that they say reflects apartheid ideology.
In Soweto, violence marred recent end-of-year high-school examinations. DET estimates indicate that at most only 25 percent of Soweto youths registered to take the test actually did so. In various townships hit by the boycott, DET figures show, barely a third of the students who wrote the exam scored passing marks.
The DET, in a statement on the new rules, said their aim was to ensure that 1987 sees ``a healthy climate in all schools for the presentation of effective and uninterrupted education.'' Stressing greatly increased government spending on black schools in recent years, the DET said: ``1987 can justifiably be looked forward to as a year in which uninterrupted, effective education can be offered with the full cooperation of parents in the interest of the future of every individual pupil.''
Generally, the government has made clear that it hopes 1987 will see an end to the unrest that has swirled through many black townships since fall 1984. Once this is done, officials say, the road will be open to negotiations with nonviolent black spokespersons on ``power sharing'' between whites and the country's overwhelming black majority. Official figures show a sharp decline in the monthly number of unrest-related deaths since the state of emergency began in June. Since 1984, political violence has taken more than 2,200 lives, most of them black.
Even under the emergency, incidents of murder, gasoline bombing, and stone throwing continue. On Christmas Day, for instance, official reports said two blacks died in clashes between black moderates and anti-apartheid militants in a township outside Johannesburg. A black girl, the reports said, died in similar clashes in a township near Durban. Also reported were isolated ``unrest-related incidents of stone throwing and petrol-bomb attacks on private homes and vehicles.''
Black leaders have so far rejected the official offer of ``power sharing.'' The most influential moderate black leader, Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, said in a New Year's message that no negotiations were possible unless the government abandoned the idea of ``consultations which are no more than paternalistic orientations of white interest groups.''
This report was written to conform with South Africa's press restrictions.