A "crisis committee" of black parents and community leaders called today for an end to a nationwide boycott of black schools but set a series of demands for political changes that South Africa's white-minority government must meet within three months or face a campaign of collective community action.
The meeting of representatives from 161 parents, educational, political and youth organizations followed an unprecedented canvassing of opinion by the committee, which included talks with government ministers, white opposition members of Parliament, top businessmen and leaders of the underground African National Congress.
Announcing the decision to urge students to return to school conditionally, Ntatho Motlana, a leading Soweto community leader, told a press conference that if the demands were not met by March 31, another meeting of community leaders would be called to decide on appropriate action.
Motlana said the demands included an end to "apartheid education," the reinstatement of black teachers dismissed or transferred because of their political views, the legitimization of a black students' organization called Cosas, the recognition of elected student councils at black schools and an end to corporal punishment.
Students also have demanded an end to the five-month state of emergency and the withdrawal of troops from the black townships, the Soweto leader added.
Today's meeting ended with a unanimous decision that black parents should also refuse to pay school fees or buy textbooks for their children, which are free for white children.
The committee was formed by parents and educators as a massive boycott of schools, enforced by militant young black activists, seemed likely to extend into the academic year that begins Jan. 8.
The militants, who effectively have taken control of many of the segregated townships and enforce their decisions with acts of violence, brought the black education system to a near standstill toward the end of 1985.
With a popular slogan of "liberation now, education later," they imposed a boycott of township schools and rallied thousands of black students to demonstrate in the streets and spearhead South Africa's year of unrest and protest against the apartheid system of segregation. The campaign culminated in a near total boycott of year-end examinations, which means few blacks will be entering university in 1986.
The boycott was enforced with acts of intimidation. Some students who took their examinations in secret reportedly had their hands amputated. Others were killed.
However, it seems clear that there was widespread popular support for the boycott. Separate and unequal education has long been a primary grievance among blacks; it provided the spark that set off the last major black unrest in South Africa, in 1976.
The problem for many parents was that the loss of education for their children would mean a crippling setback for them as individuals as well as for the cause of black liberation.
Some members of the committee traveled to Zimbabwe on Wednesday to meet four members of the ANC national executive, having first safeguarded themselves against government action by consulting with top businessmen, leaders of the opposition and two members of the Cabinet, Deputy Minister of Education Sam de Beer and Deputy Minister of National Security Adriaan Vlok.
"It would be treasonable for me to quote what the ANC told us, but I am nevertheless going to tell you that they said they would abide by what we decided," one of the committee members, Vusi Khayile, told today's meeting at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.
Desmond M. Tutu, the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, shaped the strategy that was later adopted when he advised the students to set conditions for returning to school, and if these were not met by a March 31 deadline the whole black community should join them in a "down-tools" campaign.
"If you do that, you will have the whole community behind you because you will be acting reasonably," Tutu advised the students.