Black students, who brought their school system to the brink of collapse in 1976 and 1977 through boycott action, have so far remained aloof from the three-week-old school boycott by Colored (mixed race) students protesting their segregated education.
Except for strikes at a few isolated schools, black students have limited their response to brief messages of "solidarity" with the Colored students' boycott. Their reasons for not joining the boycott lie in their recent experience with strikes and in the on-going police vigliance given to black student activities.
But they also offer an insight into the mood and attitudes of the most politicized and alienated section of the black population and the one with whom the government will ultimately have to deal as the struggle for power between black and white intensifies.
The violence and hardships experienced in the 1976 school boycott and subsequent unrest are major deterrents to another school strike, many blacks say. Several thousand black teenagers went without schooling for almost two years. Families were disrupted as thousands of youths fled the country to join anti-Pretoria guerrilla movements. Scores of students were detained indefinitely by security police, others were killed in street confrontations and still others are serving prison terms for their activities during the unrest.
"We still need time to recover from the trauma of 1976," said a black librarian from Soweto, the black township outside Johnnesburg where the 1976 protest began.
"Many students see friends who are now at university and they say, "well, we are not there because we boycotted,' so they are studying now," said Tseke Morathi, an official of the Congress of South African Students, an organization of high school youths. "But that's not to say they are satisfied, they feel they have been forced to accept the situation."
In addition, blacks expect that if they joined the boycott the police would act against them in a much harsher way than they have up to now with the Coloreds.
"If it were us blacks (boycotting), it would by guns, not baton charges," said George Wauchope, an official of the Azanian People's Organization.
Compounding these inhibitions is an emaciated student leadership cadre that has little support from black teachers and principals, is prohibited from acting openly at schools and is trammeled by constant police scrutiny both directly and indirectly through a network of informers.
Soon after the student congress was formed last year, most of its leadership was detained. The president, Ephraim Mogale, is standing trial for offenses under the country's "terrorism" law. Last February, the group was ignored by students when it called for a school boycott in Soweto. Its officials say they failed because of student's fear and their own inability to organize at schools
But just as significant as student reluctance and fear is an important tactical shift among black militants.
"Events in 1976 did two things to kids," said a black teacher from Soweto who resigned in sympathy with the children's protest against their inferior education.
"It cowed and it radicalized," he said. "Those that it radicalized are very, very well organized and very clear in their thinking. They say, "we are not going to give the police cannon fodder. We are going to get guns and deal with them in a way they understand." And they are doing it."
"We decided we must do less talking and take more action," said one Soweto student who was charged with sedition last year for his role in the student revolt of 1976. "We tried talking and we see now the white man doesn't want to talk.
"Students feel that the education system is just one spot in the 'monster' that is the corrupt political system in this country. The only way to fight it is the way that it was done in Zimbabwe, the way it was done in Mozambique and the way it is being done here," he said, making it clear he was speaking about guerrilla warfare.
"We feel there should be some visible leadership among students but the fact is, those of us who are doing that are getting less. Now, we are only showing this to the outside," he said holding up the white of his palm.
Then, turning round his hand to show his black wrist, he said, "this, our true colors, we are keeping hidden for now."
In the past year, two police stations in Soweto and one in Johannesburg have been attacked, leaving two black policemen dead. No one has been charged for those attacks.
Among young blacks there is wide-spread support for this kind of activity which is evident in the contempt some have shown for the Colored student's insistence that their boycott be nonviolent.
"Actually they should do what we do," said one political activist from Soweto. "Hold up the V-sign for peace in one hand but have a bomb behind their backs in the other hand."
For some observers, another factor in the black's nonparticipation in the boycott is their alienation from the Coloreds and Indians, two minorities that have traditionally had ambivalent relationships with the black majority because of their higher places on the racial pecking order set up by the government's policies.
Although black student leaders emphasize that Coloreds and Indians are allies of the blacks, in practice the situation is often different.
"Let's face it, most blacks don't feel the Coloreds are part of out struggle," said one black journalist.
This attitude concerns many activists who fear it is gaining currency among black youths because of the systematic removal of leaders in the black consciousness movement.
"Without those leaders the kids are getting the wrong conceptions about black consciousness," said black educationist Fanyana Mazibuko. "In the first place, more and more, they take it to mean they must be antiwhite and secondly, they tend to question whether black should include Colored and Indian."