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Monday, October 19, 1998 Published at 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK


Education

The new struggle

Free thinking characterises the teaching style

By BBC Africa Correspondent Jane Standley

A pioneering South African school - the first to fight apartheid by educating children of all races together - is threatened with closure.

Woodmead School was illegal under apartheid's laws when it opened on the edges of Johannesburg in 1970, but was a popular cause for opponents of the white rule government.

But funds to keep it open in the new, multi-racial South Africa have now run out, and an alliance with business may be the only way for it to keep going.


[ image: Woodmead campus: Ahead of its time]
Woodmead campus: Ahead of its time
Rod Lloyd, who was on the board of the white-founded school during the worst days of apartheid in the 1970s and 80s, recalls threats of closure and other problems.

"There were problems with the security police," he said.

"They would stop the school buses and drag off - victimising really - students who were connected with board members, who were banned at that time."

Quiet counter-threats of legal action and support from overseas kept Woodmead alive as a private institution.

Teacher Dennis Woodward was inspired by its vision of a different South Africa.

"There were a lot of Indian students, black children - whose parents could afford to send them here, bearing in mind it's a private school. There were white children.

"The atmosphere was very positive. To a large extent it was the apartheid thing that generated that positive atmosphere."

As white rule ended, so did charitable donations from opponents of apartheid. But the legacy of discrimination means the government's priority is the shambolic state education system - not private schools, however visionary.

Heavily in debt and laying off its staff, Woodmead's roll has fallen by half and closure is on the cards.

Hotel management

Students see a company called The Forum as their potential saviour. The firm runs private schools and universities for profit and is offering to take over Woodmead, promising to maintain its ethos while introducing 'entrepreneurial subjects' such as tourism and hotel management.

The Forum's Jeff Wiggle says the ethos of Woodmead was a microcosm 20 years ago of what South Africa is now.

"That's why I'm determined to keep the name, Woodmead, to build on that heritage, and obviously to position it with this entrepreneurial slant to deal with the challenges in the job market in the new South Africa.

Today's still-radical students discuss the takeover. A new country, new business, new jobs are their buzz words. Lebohane Mohtlane is in favour of the commercial takeover of the old struggle.

"I think that's fantastic. I'm about to finish here and I was just thinking 'Oh why did they come now?'," she said.

"If I could do another year I would come back - I think it's absolutely great."

Kudos gone

But Megan Watkins wants Woodmead's historical place preserved, too.

"The stand against apartheid has always been extremely courageous I'm always amazed that the school managed to survive against incredible odds, " she said.

"It was so important. It's really important today - the students who come out of Woodmead have that extra little bit of help in surviving in a new society."

While Woodmead fans appear keen to swallow the commercial pill, many will not accept the argument that the school is an anachronism.

Some - like Rod Lloyd - believe its plight reflects a growing rejection in black-ruled South Africa of the role white people played in the struggle against apartheid.

"I find it very sad that the school has in a way been left on its own wobbly feet. It clearly battled for years and people just walked away.

"Once the kudos of being associated with Woodmead as a political ally fell away they all left in droves," he said.

"White liberals or liberals in general are not highly regarded in this part of the world."





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