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Court Rules White School Must Admit Black Students

February 16, 1996

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) _ The judge didn’t read his decision aloud Friday, but the verdict rang loud and clear nonetheless: Five black children must be allowed to attend a white school that denied them admission.

The decision knocked down one of the most the blatant challenges to South Africa’s first constitution promising equal rights.

It could be the first step in South Africa’s version of Brown Vs. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that outlawed racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

A lawyer for the school, in the town of Potgietersrus 180 miles north of Johannesburg, said an appeal would be filed to the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court.

Potgietersrus has long been controlled by Afrikaners _ Dutch-descended whites, 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. It also has things like a swimming pool and art and music classes, once unheard-of in black schools.

Under apartheid, the government spent up to five times more on white students than blacks, and black schools continue to show the effects of decades of neglect.

When Alson 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.

Together with the parents of two other children, Matukane sued. In the past, they might not have had any recourse. But the changes in South Africa put the law on their side.

In his decision, Judge Theo Spoelstra quoted liberally from the constitution that took effect in April 1994 at the same time the first all-race election ended white minority rule.

The judge said the constitution prohibits schools from barring children on the basis of ``race, ethnic or social origin, culture, color or language.″

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.″

Spoelstra simply handed his written decision to lawyers and moved on to his next case, leaving lawyers, education ministry officials and reporters in the courtroom momentarily confused. There were no crowds in support of either side at the Pretoria Supreme Court.

Minister of Education Sibusiso Bengu said he felt ``delight and joy″ at the outcome of a case that could have ramifications for the entire nation.

The five children are to begin attending classes sometime next week, said Ngoako Ramatlhodi, premier of the Northern Province government that joined the black parents in the lawsuit.

Before then, talks will take place with school officials and teachers and police to ensure the children would be safe and treated fairly, he said.

Danie Bisschoff, the school’s lawyer, said Afrikaners were the victims of reverse discrimination.

``They try to make it acceptable by telling us we are racist and we are not,″ he said. ``Why force any school to accept any child? It’s not reasonable, I think.″

But Spoelstra’s ruling rejected the school’s contention that allowing black children would swamp it with English-speakers, eroding its Afrikaans-language identity.

``This is so farfetched as to border on the ridiculous,″ the judge said.

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