Having won a key political battle over black student militants, can the South African government win the war? This is the question set up by the apparent orderly return to school yesterday of thousands of students who had been boycotting classes in major urban areas. At least by time of writing, there were no reports of major holdouts in the back-to-school move, or of violence surrounding it. Pamphlets distributed in one black township near Johannesburg did, however, suggest that some youths may still favor a boycott.
Nominally, the return to classes at the end of the Southern Hemisphere's summer holidays was in line with a consensus decision by major black community and anti-apartheid leaders. It was not in response to a call by the government. Still, the move represented a retreat by the government's black political rivals - and a setback for the teen-age militants, known as ``comrades,'' who had been the driving force behind the boycott. Officials welcomed the students' return and said they hoped it signaled an end to the political disruptions that have hit black schools during the past year.
Earlier moves by black community organizations for an end to the boycott had foundered amid resistance from the comrades. At a minimum, the militants insisted, the government must first meet a number of political demands.
Backed by community leaders, the students sought the withdrawal of South African soldiers from the country's black townships, an end to the national state of emergency declared more than six months ago, and the release of jailed student leaders. The boycott organizers have also been pressing for an overhaul of the country's segregated system of state schools, which they contend has condemned blacks to inferior education.
But yesterday, the students returned without having achieved any of their declared goals. In effect, the youths were accepting the contention of the community leaders - and their own parents - that a continuation of the boycott risked leaving an entire generation of blacks without any education at all. More important, perhaps, remarks from black students interviewed recently suggest a growing resentment of the militants' pressure - in some cases, violence - against youths determined to stay in school.
The retreat on the boycott issue, however, has set up a new test of wills with the authorities. Some of the returning students have pledged to overhaul black education from within, by pressing for a shift to ``people's education'' from a government curriculum they say reflects the apartheid system of racial segregation.
The government, for its part, has made clear it will fight any such effort. President Pieter Botha issued a decree last month empowering officials to take all necessary actions to keep politics out of the classroom. Education officials were empowered to bar any course not explicitly approved by them - a definition clearly aimed at ``people's education.''
Non-government education experts have reacted coolly to the new government powers, terming them a necessarily doomed effort to control the classroom by administrative order. In response to other official restrictions last year, some black students who were not participating in the boycott disrupted classes, refused teachers' directives, held political debates on school grounds, or routinely left school early in the day.
Still, there can be little doubt that the government is determined to oppose a revival of such actions, or any student push for an alternative curriculum. This seems particulary true given the central role of the ``comrades'' and other black youths in the antigovernment unrest of the past 27 months.
Indeed, since an earlier period of violence in 1976, students have consistently been at the forefront of black political protest. The youths argue that their elders have meekly accepted the rigors of apartheid.
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.