To 12-year-old Idah Khesa, a beaming girl in beaded hair who would like to become a scientist, the start of the South African school year Wednesday presented a new world of opportunity.
She was one of tens of thousands of black pupils taking advantage of historic new rules by President Nelson Mandela’s government that bar school discrimination and permit blacks in classrooms previously set aside for whites.
What does her new school have that her old one lacked? For starters, a swimming pool and tennis courts, she said with a dreamy smile. “I am very excited.”
Escorted by her father, a plastics worker, Idah left a rundown classroom in the Kliptown section of Soweto and signed up at the private Fairways Primary School - a quiet academy situated next to a golf course in a suburb north of Johannesburg.
The anti-discrimination rules that took effect Wednesday are the first step by African National Congressled government to fulfill its campaign pledge to end schooling along racial lines.
From now on, no state-funded school can discriminate because of color and even the poorest child is guaranteed an education. Nearly 2 million pupils were expected to report for first grade, which for the first time is free and compulsory.
“The government is committed to finding a space for every child,” said Mary Metcalfe, in charge of education for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg.
Joseph Khesa, Idah’s father, said he was happy to pay the equivalent of $1,200 a year and drive Idah and her 7-year-old sister a half-hour so they can attend Fairways.
“Last year I did try to enroll my kids at these (white) schools, but always I was getting that the schools are full. This year, on my first attempt, they agreed to take my kids,” he said. “The main benefit I think is that my child will be involved with whites, she must gain something from that, and being away from riot places.”
The new rules have infuriated conservative whites, who claim it violates constitutionally guaranteed culture rights if non-Afrikaner pupils are imposed on Afrikaner schools.
“It is not possible to have decent education where you have different cultural groups in the same school,” said Ferdi Hartzenberg, leader of the Conservative Party.