WITH his hip-hop haircut, paisley shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers, 16-year-old Lere Chapole could have stepped straight out of urban America. Lere (pronounced "Larry") enjoys "hip-house music" - "it's a mixture of rap and house music." He likes dancing, watching "L.A. Law" and Eddie Murphy movies, and playing soccer, badminton, and squash. He is fascinated by new cars and the inner working of mechanical objects.
"I also like violent movies," he says, conceding his only apparent vice.
Lere is a stocky teenager with a broad smile, a quick temper, and an infectious zest for life.
He is self-aware, rather than self-conscious, but his laid-back appearance is misleading. It conceals a concerned youth trying to balance the forces confronting him, as old traditions and values are challenged by a new urban consciousness.
Lere belongs to an elite group in black society here - a small but rapidly growing middle class who will provide the leadership in the new South Africa. He is an example of the dramatic results that are achieved when a black child has the opportunity to break free of the black ghetto and receive a quality education.
Of the approximately 2 million black pupils enrolled at schools in the urban areas, only 20,000 or so have the privilege of going to private schools.
Lere is part of a generation whose schooling has been severely disrupted by boycotts and political activism aimed at destroying the inferior system of education for blacks known as Bantu education. It is estimated that 3 million to 4 million blacks between the ages of 16 and 32 have had grossly inadequate education. Their school years have been a period of intense politicization.
LERE is challenged by South Africa's legacy of racial injustice, but has not resorted to political activism, like many of his black contemporaries.
Religion is an integral part of Lere's life, rather than a conscious act. "Religion is one of the most important parts of life," he says. "Going to church with my parents is part of me, but I hardly ever pick up the Bible."
It is the influence of religion that helped motivate Lere's mother and father to pursue a university education. Lere's maternal grandfather was a Methodist minister and his father, Solomon Chapole, recognized the importance of education at an early age. In order to study at a university his parents left Lere with his grandmother for four years in the township of Katlehong when Lere was four years old. Then, no more than 20,000 blacks were enrolled in South African universities. Today, nearly a third of the country's 330,000 university students are black, and the proportion is growing.
Lere's father is a professor of African languages and literature at Vista University in Soweto, a modern university for blacks. Mr. Chapole is Sotho-speaking and a practicing Methodist.
Lere's mother, Nomsa, is the daughter of a Methodist minister. She is a member of the smaller Pedi tribe from the northern Transvaal and also speaks Sotho. Mrs. Chapole has just taken up a post as principal of the Ntombizodwa Secondary School.
When Lere sets off each morning at 7 from the modern family home - the Chapoles are staying with relatives while their own house is being built - he leaves one world and enters another.
In reconciling this paradox, Lere Chapole has reached a maturity which sets him apart from many of his white classmates: "In my community, you get shunned for going to a private school," he says. As a pupil at Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic School with a 50-50 racial mix, Lere is one of a small but inceasing band of black teenagers growing up in daily contact with whites. He reflects a confidence and broad-mindedness that distinguishes him from his contemporaries in the black townships, reared on inferi or education and political activism that leave little room for individuality.
Parental authority has remained intact in the Chapole home - unlike most families in the black townships, where a generation of black youths seized the political initiative from the older generation.
"Sometimes I realize that having rules is important," Lere says. "It keeps you going straight. In two years' time I will be doing what I like, but the ways my father has taught me will help me at a later stage."
LERE'S strong sense of community is second nature, part of his inherited culture. But he has long since shed many of the traditions of his rural ancestors - practices like initiation rites (still widely practiced in some tribes) and ancestor worship.
"When you move into modern times, things change and the old ways are less used," he says. "Living near the city has changed quite a lot of my traditional culture," says Lere, munching slowly on a cheeseburger in a fast-food outlet: "I have only recently become aware of culture and how important it is."
In the turmoil of adolescence, Lere has surprisingly few conscious fears, but there is one situation he would find very difficult:
"I fear divorce," he says. "If it happened in my family I wouldn't like to have to take sides because I like my father and mother a lot."
Lere's outward appearance - the trappings of black American youth culture - is a recent acquisition. It partly harks back to his pleasant memories of a very exciting six months spent in the United States when his father was on a sabbatical four years ago at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
"I like the sports in America - football, basketball, and baseball," says Lere. "I like the way of life. You could get the latest music and everything was up-to-date."
But Lere's roots are firmly in South Africa and his wide experience and insights will stand him in good stead to meet the formidable challenges ahead.
He hopes to make a contribution by becoming a lawyer.
"I want to be a lawyer because I think it is creative the way problems are solved in a courtroom," says Lere. And then, spontaneously:
"I like arguing, and I always want to be right."