A little school near South Africa's tropical east coast port of Durban is breaking just about every racial taboo the white government here has enforced previously at local schools. And it seems to be a great success. The school is called Uthongathi, a Zulu word meaning ``a place of significance.'' For the staff and students - who hope it will be an example to the rest of the country - it most certainly is a significant place.
Formal government education policy for all state-run schools in South Africa is that each school should be rigidly segregated according to race. African, white, Asian, and so-called Colored (mixed-race) students each go to separate schools. White children are further segregated by language: English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking children are sent to different schools.
But Uthongathi, built with private funds, is completely, and calculatedly, multiracial. It was the first school set up at the outset to be multiracial, though many other private schools have become so. Furthermore, in a country where co-ed schools are the exception, and still often regarded as a risky experiment, Uthongathi is a co-ed school. To compound the complications - according to conservative South African perceptions - at least half the students are boarders.
Diehard supporters of South Africa's segregation policies, known as apartheid, would consider this a recipe for disaster. But it works. Grades are high, and most important, there are no apparent racial animosities, even though the children all come from families obliged by law to live in segregated neighborhoods.
Headmaster Richard Thompson says he believes ``the greatest single problem'' in South Africa is that the different races do not trust one another because they simply do not know one another. At Uthongathi, he says, ``the strategy is to make sure that no one race group is represented in such small numbers as to feel culturally threatened. We're creating an environment which, from a racial point of view, is nonthreatening.''
There is little likelihood that Uthongathi would have been allowed to open at all - all schools in South Africa, private or state-run, require a government license - but for a long battle fought by other once whites-only private schools to admit black students.
When these schools enrolled token handfuls of blacks, the government threatened to close them down for defying apartheid. The schools stood firm and the government backed down, at least partially. The schools could, however, still lose their government subsidies if they admit too many blacks.
The founders of Uthongathi have not even bothered to apply for a government subsidy. Their school's thoroughly multiracial policy would almost certainly preclude this. Instead, they look to individual and corporate donors to provide help, especially scholarships for black students who have the ability to do well but whose parents do not have enough money to pay the relatively high school fees.
Black South Africans are the group most eager to enroll at Uthongathi. The main reason is that educational standards at state-run black schools are acknowledged to be generally appallingly low.
Several black students interviewed said their main reason for wanting to be at Uthongathi was the high educational standards it encourages. A 13-year-old black girl said, however, that the school provided not only a ``good education'' but also a ``lovely atmosphere'' because of the way the students are allowed to mix freely.
For the white students, there seems to be a sense of adventure at being here, and a sense that they are part of an important educational experiment. One girl said she enrolled ``because it's a new experience for the whole of South Africa and I just felt it was the place to be.'' She added, ``It's just like we're not only being taught schoolwork but also about life.''
There has been no formal official reaction to the school, though the fact that the government has given it a license suggests a softening of the traditional hard-line apartheid approach toward education. Headmaster Thompson says even a Cabinet minister has ``shown an interest'' in the school.
Major corporations have been more explicit in their approval. The Anglo American Corporation, the nation's largest company, provided all 9 million rand (approximately $4.5 million) needed to build and equip Uthongathi, and another major mining house will pay for another, similar school.
The project is being organized by a trust named the New Era Schools Trust, symbolically contracted to NEST. At this stage, the trustees plan to build three more multiracial schools.
It's unlikely there will be a need for students. For the 103 places open at Uthongathi at the start of this year, there were more than 908 applicants.
The school intends to increase its enrollment year by year until it reaches 300. Thompson would like also to build a junior school so that children could be educated in a nonracial environment from the time they enter the lowest grades. At present, Uthongathi takes only the more senior students.
Not only the students are benefiting from Uthongathi, says Thompson, but the parents are as well. Parents' days at the school, and sporting events, have given many of them their first opportunity to meet socially on equal terms with people of a different race.
Uthongathi will be a year old in January. It is very small indeed, considering the hundreds of thousands of students at racially segregated schools. But it is an experiment in racial cooperation that is already provoking wide comment.
Thompson says he would like to see it serve as a model for other schools and as a catalyst that could help transform apartheid education. ``I know we're just a drop in the ocean, but somebody has to start somewhere,'' he said.