Opening of schools to black students ushers in new era in S. Africa @


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The new South Africa arrived last week at Orange Grove Primary School, a formerly all-white facility in the heart of a lower middle-class white community.

The school, which closed its doors in 1990 because whites didn't need it and didn't want blacks to use it, reopened Wednesday as one of the first public schools in South Africa where enrollment is not based on race. White parents in the neighborhood are not sending their children to the school yet, but school officials say the community has raised no objections to black students attending school in the neighborhood.

Hundreds of black children in black and white school uniforms filed in when the doors opened for the first day of school, many with hopes for better education than they received in black township schools.

"My mom wanted a better school for me," said Florence Mphahlele, a 10-year-old who attended school last year in strife-torn Soweto.

"It's nice and clean, and I like it here," she said of the new school, which is about a 45-minute bus ride from her home.

"These are different teachers, and they teach better things," said Precious Lebetag, 11, referring to the mostly white staff at Orange Grove. "White teachers will teach me English very well," she said, explaining that black teachers often prefer to address students in their tribal languages.

She said that there had been no violence at her grade school in Alexandra Township near Johannesburg but that pupils were often sent home early for their safety when factional violence erupted in the township last year.

"They always said we must go home before the trouble," she said.

Orange Grove is one of three "open schools" that began #F operation Wednesday when the 1992 term started. The schools represent the beginning of a new era for South Africa's racially divided educational system, where black and white schools are run by separate government departments, receive different levels of funding and produce dramatically different results.

About 2,000 white schools remain segregated across South Africa, but more than 100 white schools voted last year to admit a minority of black students under the government's limited integration plan. The government closed 213 white schools last year because of low enrollment. Three of those were used for the new open schools, which the government opened unilaterally without giving white residents a vote.

Orange Grove is a neat neighborhood of modest brick and stucco houses on small plots of land rather than the expansive properties found in many better-off white communities. From its narrow streets, passers-by can see into front gardens over low fences, which also distinguishes the neighborhood from areas where high walls front the streets, shutting gardens off from outsiders.

The school is like the neighborhood, modest and open.

The classrooms are neat, clean and orderly, which puts them a giant step ahead of most schools in Soweto or Alexandra, the nearest black townships. There the schools are often cluttered and untidy, with broken windows and unfinished ceilings.

"The Orange Grove School epitomizes what South Africa is all about -- where we were and where we're going," said Douglas Gibson, a member of Parliament whose constituency includes the community of Orange Grove.

He said the aging white population of Orange Grove no longer required a primary school, but the parents rejected the idea of admitting a limited number of blacks when the government made that option available for the first time in 1990.

Instead, they allowed the government to close the school because of low enrollment, and it sat empty for an entire school year while black pupils were crammed into overcrowded classrooms in nearby black townships.

"The school was allowed to rot, which is a great pity when you have hundreds of thousands of children in need of educational facilities," said Mr. Gibson, who joined a community group that pressured the government to reopen Orange Grove School.

Black political activists also threatened to take over the empty school forcibly and fill it with black children, a plan they canceled because of a looming confrontation with police. The activists called on the government to open all schools in South Africa to all races and put an end to apartheid in education.

When the government finally relented late last year and announced its decision to reopen Orange Grove with no racial criteria (and no option of a white veto), the facility was deluged with black parents hoping to give their youngsters a good education in a trouble-free atmosphere.

"We saw 1,200 children in two days of enrollment," said Margaret Greve, principal of the school. "Unfortunately we only have space for 350 to 400."

She said that most of the children were from black townships and that the school's enrollment was almost totally black because white students had already enrolled in other public schools by the time the announcement was made about Orange Grove. Only black parents, desperate to leave township schools or to escape the cost of expensive private ones, would leap at the last-minute opportunity offered by the new school.

"You can't take the risk of sending them to our schools," said Esther Mabitsela, a secretary who lives in Soweto but who sent her children to private schools in Johannesburg. December Shabalala said he sent his two sons, ages 7 and 8, to a township school last year, but took them out because "there's no education going on in the township schools. I didn't feel the township school was doing them justice."

Last year, only 39 percent of black students passed their high school graduation exams, compared with 97 percent of white students. Black activists blame the government for setting up a system of segregated education in which blacks were severely disadvantaged. The government blames activists for making the schools political battlegrounds and encouraging children to boycott schools to protest government policies.

Whites in communities such as Orange Grove have expressed fears that the township problems will spill into their neighborhoods.

"The whites were afraid the blacks would change the character of the neighborhood," said Mr. Gibson, the member of Parliament, who is white. "I think the overwhelming majority of white South Africans are ready for integrated education as long as the standards don't drop."

Eleanor Lemberti, who lives a few blocks from Orange Grove and brings her 4-year-old son to the all-white nursery school next door, said that she had no objection to the multiracial school and that she believed most whites in the area shared her opinion.

"I think the objection was not an objection to a multiracial or a black school. It's the disruption and the noise. Most people are not troubled by the fact that it's blacks," she said as she dropped her son off.

Right-wing extremists in conservative towns have set off bombs over the past two weeks in schools that were scheduled to admit limited numbers of blacks this year. Mr. Gibson said they were "mad people" with virtually no following, and he predicted there would be no such trouble at Orange Grove.

Mrs. Greve, the principal, said the community had been supportive this year despite their initial rejection of the idea two years ago.

"I have had nothing but congratulations. I have not heard one negative comment," she said, although she conceded that some "old Orange Grove residents may still have to get used to the new South Africa.

"I think they must just give us a few months to prove that the value of their property, if anything, is going to go up."

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