A long dormant dispute between the South African government and some of the country’s church schools threatened to erupt into the open once again during February. A showdown seemed imminent last month between the schools and the administrator of the Transvaal province, Sybrand van Niekerk. In contrast to his counterpart in the traditionally more liberal Cape province, van Niekerk has refused to admit almost all the black, coloured (mixed race), and Indian children who had applied to attend church schools in the Transvaal (Feb. 16 issue, p. 61).

Only 4 of 223 applications were approved, but the churches—mainly Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal)—went ahead and admitted many of the pupils anyway. Now, with van Niekerk refusing to recognize their admission, the Catholic church is willing to risk having its schools closed rather than back down and expel the pupils.

In terms of central government policy, nonwhite pupils can be admitted to formerly white church schools only in “highly exceptional circumstances.” But this ruling has been far more strictly applied in the Transvaal than in the Cape, where most similar applications have succeeded.

An unnamed Catholic church source in the Transvaal was quoted as saying: “I think the whole thing is going to come to a head now.” He added, though, that his church saw the conflict as being a struggle within the ranks of different factions in the government, rather than primarily a clash between the Catholics and the state.

An irony of the situation is that it was the Pretoria government that first approached the Catholic schools several years ago and asked them to take in the children of black diplomats. The children could not have been accommodated in ordinary government schools without acute embarrassment. The Catholics who, like the Anglicans, have an especially large black constituency in South Africa, complied readily. But now their insistence on providing church education for all their members—and van Niekerk’s opposition—could lead to a showdown from which neither they nor the authorities can emerge unscathed.

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