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Chaos in S. Africa Schools Stirs Fears of New 'Lost Generation'

October 09, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

SOWETO, South Africa — The school doors are locked, armed soldiers patrol the grounds, and the teachers are being transferred. Oliver Tambo High School has been closed.

"This government wants us to grow up stupid so the whites can continue to rule," a student leader, Ellen, 17, says to the cheers of her classmates in an impromptu street-corner rally across from the school, one of 33 the government closed last month.

"But the government should know that we are going to grow up angry, very angry, and in a few years we will be ruling, not these whites. We will come back then and reopen our school as a people's school."

Behind the bitterness and the bravado of Ellen's words, there was a desperation about her life. Would she ever get back to Oliver Tambo High, which the students named in honor of the president of the outlawed African National Congress? Would she ever go to college to become the social worker she hopes to be? Without an education, what future would she have, even in a "liberated" South Africa?

"I am really torn," Ellen said later at her home nearby in the Meadowlands section of Soweto. "I would die for the struggle, I would gladly give my life if it would help end apartheid. . . . But then I ask myself, would it? Is what I am doing going to change anything? Or will my efforts be futile and my life a waste?"

May Be 'Lost Generation'

Already known as the "angry generation" after two years of continuing civil strife here, South Africa's militant black youths are now in danger, many here feel, of becoming the country's "lost generation" as well.

"A 'lost generation' of black youth is a very real and very frightening prospect," said Saths Cooper, president of the black-consciousness Azanian People's Organization and a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "Many of these kids have been out of school for two years and won't be back in class for at least another two, and maybe never for some.

"Their frustration, their anger, their desperation are already growing daily. There are no jobs for them now, and without an education their prospects for employment in the future are minimal. How are we going to reintegrate them into society, particularly a new society we want to build?"

Black students began to boycott classes two years ago to protest a variety of grievances--rent increases, the fatal shooting of demonstrators by police, detention without trial, the inferior quality of their own schooling, the whole apartheid system of racial separation and minority white rule. In doing so they quickly became the vanguard of the heightened struggle against apartheid.

Only Youngest in Class

But their one- and two-day protests quickly turned into weeklong, monthlong and even indefinite boycotts of school. When they did attend classes, high school students would spend the morning in political meetings and in singing "freedom songs" and then leave before noon, taking their protests into the streets. Only the youngest pupils attended class regularly.

As a result, many black teachers, even those in primary schools, no longer even pretend to teach. Virtually all told stories of colleagues chased down the street by their 10- and 11-year-old students, of others who hid in classroom cupboards to escape rampaging children and of some teachers ordered by their pupils to "pass one, pass all"--or be burned alive.

The danger that Cooper and others now see is a "Khmer Rouge syndrome" in which thousands upon thousands of black youths, angered by apartheid and alienated from society by years of violence and brutality, attack even their own communities, much as the young Khmer Rouge soldiers did after the 1975 Communist victory in Cambodia.

" 'Liberation now, education later' is a good slogan, but it is based on the illusion that apartheid can be ended with a final push, that this government is about to crumble," the Rev. Stanley Magoba, the secretary of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and a prominent anti-apartheid activist in his youth, said not long ago. "I also question seriously whether we should make the schools the front line of our struggle against apartheid. . . .

Can't Afford Illiteracy

"Liberation will come, but it may still be 10 years away. What are these kids going to do until then? . . . Can our post-apartheid society afford hundreds of thousands, millions even, of uneducated, perhaps illiterate adults? No, obviously not."

Few, even among the most militant youths, would dispute the need for black children, many of whom have not attended school regularly for two years, to return to class. But few issues are more contentious here than the conditions for the students' return and their continued education.

Under the four-month-old state of emergency, the government has adopted strict, and highly controversial, measures to ensure "a return to normality" for the country's 7,366 urban black schools.

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