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Court Says Public Schools Cannot Discriminate

April 5, 1996

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ In a case reminiscent of the civil rights struggle in the United States, South Africa’s highest court has ruled that public schools cannot discriminate on the basis of language or religion.

The Constitutional Court rejected conservative whites’ arguments that they have a right to separate, state-supported schools where they can continue their way of life and preserve Afrikaans, the language of the descendants of early Dutch colonists.

The 11-member court was unanimous in its decision Thursday, handing segregationists yet another defeat in the post-apartheid era.

Opponents of segregation say so-called ``cultural schools″ are thinly disguised attempts to exclude blacks and to retain the favored place whites were guaranteed under apartheid, when the government spent up to five times more on each white student as each black student.

Since the fall of apartheid, blacks have been abandoning squalid, long-neglected township schools and demanding admission to well-equipped schools in white areas.

Whites ``could complain if the state treated them less advantageously than other groups,″ Judge Albie Sachs said in his opinion. ``Their claim to retain a privileged situation, however, would not have the same, or any, force.″

Since taking power in 1994 when all-race elections ended apartheid, the African National Congress has used education policy to promote its vision of a multicultural society.

But Wouter Hoffman, a leader of the Conservative Party, which seeks a separate white state within South Africa, said he was dismayed by Thursday’s ruling.

``This rainbow nation idea is a dream,″ Hoffman said. ``They are trying to force different cultures on one another.″

Resistance by conservative whites led to police escorting black children to a formerly all-white school in the farming town of Potgietersrus earlier this year.

The case recalled America’s civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, when blacks used the courts to open the doors to public institutions, while whites sought legal loopholes to preserve their privileges.

Sachs even cited Brown vs. Board of Education, a landmark U.S. desegregation case, in noting that the issues before him were about much more than teaching children.

Thursday’s ruling, which has nationwide effect, said the government was under no obligation to fund cultural schools.

The decision was based on South Africa’s interim constitution, the first to treat blacks and whites as equals. The conservative whites’ demand that state-supported cultural schools be written into a final constitution was one of several issues holding up completion of the charter.

Any other decision ``would have perpetuated the divisions of the past,″ said Mary Metcalf, the education minister of Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, whose policies were upheld by the ruling.

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