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Court Rules White School Must Admit Black Students

February 16, 1996

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) _ A white school must admit three blacks it tried to bar, a judge ruled today, knocking down one of the most the blatant challenges to South Africa’s first constitution promising equal rights.

While an isolated case, the ruling affirmed that South African courts will uphold the national law in the post-apartheid era.

The court ruled that the Potgietersrus Primary School, an Afrikaner school in a town 180 miles north of Johannesburg, must stop barring children because of ``race, ethnic or social origin, culture, color or language.″

The ruling by Judge Theo Spoelstra said the three children of Alson Matukane must be permitted to attend the school. Spoelstra, who is white, also ordered the school board to pay all court costs, saying it ``failed to establish that there was no unfair discrimination against the black children.″

Ngoako Ramatlhodi, premier of the Northern Province that filed the court challenge against the school, said the children would begin attending classes sometime next week. Before then, talks would take place with school officials and teachers to ensure the children would be safe and treated fairly, he said.

He expected no trouble from other students, saying: ``We have seen white and black children play together in this country. Children don’t have any problems.″

A lawyer for the school said an appeal would be filed with South Africa’s highest court.

``They are discriminating against us ... a minority group,″ lawyer Danie Bisschoff said in reference to Afrikaners, the Dutch-descended white settlers of South Africa. ``They try to make it acceptable by telling us we are racist and we are not. Why force any school to accept any child? It’s not reasonable, I think.″

The case pitted a community set in the old ways of South Africa against a Bill of Rights prohibiting racial discrimination under President Nelson Mandela’s government.

Under apartheid, schools for whites got money, facilities and teachers, while black schools were neglected for the most part. As reforms took shape before the 1994 election that ended apartheid, some state-funded schools were allowed to let parents pick up a portion of the costs and gain power to decide admissions policies and other issues.

Potgietersrus has long been controlled by conservative Afrikaners, many of whom believe mixing racial groups is a sin. The school has about 700 students, most of them Afrikaners, and parents fear that admitting blacks would erode Afrikaner culture.

When Matukane, who recently moved to the town as a provincial water official, tried to enroll his three children in January, he was told there was no room. He sent the children anyway, and they were turned away.

The family’s home was spray-painted with insults and they moved to a hotel for safety.

In the past, the family might not have had any recourse. But the changes in South Africa put the law on their side. Mandela’s African National Congress runs the province, and local elections last November gave Potgietersrus _ now joined with the former black township of Mahwelereng _ its first black mayor.

In his ruling, the judge rejected the school’s contention that admitting black children would swamp it with English-speakers and thus erode its Afrikaans-language identity. ``This is so far-fetched as to border on the ridiculous,″ he said.

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