School's policy on race lambasted by international press

 

THE end of apartheid has brought great changes to Potgietersru, once a bastion of white rule. After years of segregation and white control the pretty northern Transvaal town, 160 miles north of Johannesburg, now has a black mayor and a town council dominated by the African National Congress.

The mayor, Mr Boysea Thola, says he is having difficulty getting information from the council staff - 90 per cent of whom are still white - but that should change in time. The local police chief is also white, but the provincial security minister he is supposed to answer to is a black man.

White drinkers still stare at you coldly when you walk into a hotel bar with a black, but at least you will both be served. And while black children were once barred from the Potgietersrus primary school because of their race, they are now merely barred because of their "culture".

The board of the predominantly Afrikaans Potgietersrus school, which is fighting tooth and nail to keep black children out, believes it has moved with the times.

Lambasted by the local and international press over the past three weeks, the school authorities and parents have alternated between sullen silence and hurt explanations.

Sitting in his downtown surgery Dr Mof Erasmus, a friendly local physician who has served four years on the school board, is eager to explain why - appearances and utterances notwithstanding - his people are not racists.

"People are saying we are a bunch of racists, AWBs, because they see people in khaki outside the school," he says. "I also wear khaki and I'm not an AWB. Shit, I hate the AWB. They are most of them a bunch of hooligans."

The issue at Potgietersrus, he says, is culture, not race. Only 50 of the school's 450 odd pupils and three of its 24 classes are taught through English, so allowing 25 black children into the English course would not of itself harm the Afrikaans ethos of the school. But to let any blacks in would merely be admitting "the thin edge of the wedge", he says, and more would follow.

"It's not about 25 more English speaking pupils. This is where they call us racist. There is a difference between an English speaking person and someone who speaks some English."

"At the moment the English speaking pupils will have a western, Euro centric culture. The new English pupils - the blacks - would have an African centred culture. We don't want people of a different culture who would swamp the school."

It is, he concedes, regrettable that cultural divisions coincide so neatly with racial divisions: "It just happens to be that way, unfortunately. It looks bad."

Afrikaners only ask that their children be educated in line with the principles of European culture, language and religion, he explains. A foreign white child would be welcome in the school provided its background reflected these basic requirements. It was even possible, in theory, that a black child could be admitted to the school, provided its family "practised" traditional Afrikaner culture.

And what would that involve?

"It's got to do with our history, the things that happened in our past," Dr Erasmus said. "Our beliefs in where we are going. Our language."

Many whites in Potgietersrus believe that the admissions row and the state's subsequent legal case against the school - the school lost its appeal yesterday - were deliberately contrived by the ANC led provincial government to force desegregation down their throats.

Dr Erasmus recalls indignantly how the provincial government refused an offer from the school to fence off its English section and then admit black children.

"They are not interested in education. That is just a front that they have," he says.

It was not that races should not mix, Dr Erasmus added, but children should be kept from black influence while they are at an impressionable age. One of his own daughters was at a secondary school which had admitted a black student: if he was really a racist would he have allowed her to remain there?

To local blacks, the Potgietersrus school stands out as a state aided island of privilege in a sea of state underfunded deprivation. Its spacious buildings, facilities and groomed playing fields complete with grandstands would be the envy of even the wealthier Irish schools.