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Heavily Guarded Black Children Knock Down A Vestige of Apartheid

February 22, 1996

POTGIETERSRUS, South Africa (AP) _ In a scene reminiscent of U.S. desegregation battles, 16 black children protected by a police cordon walked through the gates of a formerly all-white school on Thursday _ and into South African history.

President Nelson Mandela’s government hopes desegregation in this former white bastion will set a national precedent and help wipe out lingering examples of the old apartheid education system.

One of the children, 10-year-old Thabang Thula, only had to amble three blocks to the Potgietersrus elementary school instead of riding a bus across town to the impoverished black school she used to attend.

``I was happy to go to school today,″ she told dozens of journalists waiting outside.

But some whites in this conservative, Afrikaner town 180 miles north of Johannesburg reacted angrily to the change.

Only about 20 of the almost 700 white students who attend the school showed up Thursday, and glowering parents said they would try to set up their own school rather than have their children mix with blacks.

One man, shouting in Afrikaans, cursed journalists covering the event and called the black students ``apes″ after his daughter burst into tears when mobbed by reporters and cameramen. He then took her home without giving his name.

Like many towns in rural South Africa, Potgietersrus (pronounced Pote-HEE-ters-roos) was once a whites-only community with a black township nearby. The nation’s first all-race election in 1994, which brought Mandela to power, formally ended apartheid and heralded a new constitution providing equal rights.

Now a black mayor runs the town, and blacks have moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods.

Blacks have been integrated into most of South Africa’s schools, but whites in Potgietersrus tried to maintain their hold on the state-subsidized primary school, blocking black children from enrolling. This year, with the law behind them, three black families _ backed by the provincial government _ filed a court challenge and won.

A Supreme Court ruling delivered last week and upheld on appeal Wednesday called the school’s admissions policy racist.

Northern Province Premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi planned talks with white leaders Friday to try to allay fears that ending whites-only education would prove harmful.

Mandela, speaking in Cape Town, said he hoped the talks could prevent a split in the community. ``We’ve got the court order, but we’re dealing with children and we don’t want to exercise our rights in such a way that the lives of the children″ are disrupted, he said.

Afrikaners, the Dutch-descended white settlers of South Africa, fear that bringing blacks to their traditionally all-white schools will harm the quality of education and erode their culture, particularly the use of the Afrikaans language. Some fiercely oppose the mixing of races.

Many kept their children home Thursday, including Mof Erasmus, who watched the proceedings with a few other whites from about 300 feet down the road.

``The presence of the police here is quite threatening, particularly for small children,″ he said, adding that some parents were talking about forming their own private school ``where we have our children educated with Christian values, the things that we believe in, in our mother tongue. We feel that the character is going to be changed if we are flooded with children of other cultures.″

While the constitution forbids racial discrimination, the white parents apparently hope a private school could set its own admission policy. Ramatlhodi said he refused a request from white parents Thursday to give them a building at Potgietersrus elementary for a private school.

The few white children who showed up Thursday seemed unconcerned. Robin Garner, 11, welcomed her new schoolmates, saying, ``I’m glad they came. They’re exactly the same as us and they need the education.″

Black children spent the morning in the school library because officials lacked previous school records needed to decide in which grade they should be placed.

Some were sent to classes with whites after a mid-morning break, but little learning could have been accomplished on a day of overwhelming distractions.

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