S. Africa poised for boom -- if blacks get their share

The lights lowered, and a slide of a young blond woman surrounded by stacks of gold bullion appeared on the large screen. Some of South Africa's most influential businessmen and politicians -- including state President Marais Viljoen -- waited for an audio-visual presentation to explain a new labor training program. The program is called "Manpower 2,000," and is designed to meet the need for skilled workers in this goldrich country.

While the mostly white crowd watched the screen, a taped message assured them that "golden decades lie ahead of us. We have the money to finance expansion."

But then the slide-tape program inexplicably sputtered to a halt -- leaving the audience in a quiet, darkened room.

Hasty apologies were made, but the incident may have been a more appropriate kick-off than many of the distinguished guests realized. For, according to government critics, many such "free enterprise" efforts to bolster South Africa's economy are bound to be nonstarters so long as the majority of workers here -- who happen to be black -- are fettered by racially discriminatory legislation.

South Africa today finds itself in an unusual situation. Its state coffers have been fattened by millions of dollars in gold revenues (the country produces over 700,000 tons of gold annually), and prices have skyrocketed over the past year.

As a result, South Africa is, according to economists here, poised for an economic boom. But many experts also claim that a shortage of skilled labor here forms a bottleneck in future growth.

According to a private survey, employment prospects in South Africa are at a four-year high, with one out of five companies planning to take on additional staff in the next three months. And employment prospects for blacks, according to the survey, are nearly as good as for whites.

But some estimates are that the economy will have to create 1,500 new jobs every working day over the next 20 years just to meet the demands of black work-seekers. If those demands are not met, one likely result is growing unrest -- while, at the same time, South Africa meets growing world isolation for its policy of white minority rule.

Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha has talked of a "total strategy" to meet the challenges facing this country. That strategy is still to be fleshed out, but it apparently involves enlisting the private sector in creating new economic opportunities to placate blacks, who are in a five-to-one majority in South Africa.

"Manpower 2,000," its backers privately admit, "fits hand in glove" with that "total strategy." Through an intensive media and educational campaign, the government and private-sector leaders plan to stress the need for manpower training and at the same time convince blacks of the virtues of capitalism.

But there are indications that the message may not get farther than that ill-fated audio-visual program. One key reason: the government's heavy-handed attempts to control black labor by issuing "pass books" to Africans. Any black caught without the appropriate pass is subject to arrest, fines, and imprisonment.

The government therefore is able to control where black people live and work, and to manipulate the labor supply. In 1978, over 270,000 blacks were arrested under these laws. In many cases, their only "crime" was seeking work.

The government claims to be easing up on enforcement of the pass laws -- perhaps the most hated of this country's plethora of discriminatory statutes. But other sources claim enforcement is more stringent than ever before.

The South African Institute of Race Relations terms enforcement of pass laws "negative and ultimately self-defeating" and recently expressed alarm at "ruthless implementation of these laws -- in the light of growing black resentment."

Unions trying to organize black workers also are facing continuing problems, despite purported reforms in labor laws here.

The government claims that recent policy changes have given blacks substantially the same unionization rights as whites. But "the change is not so much," says David Sebabi, an organizer for the Metal and Allied Workers Union in Johannesburg.

For example, there are continuing uncertainties about whether the government will recognize racially mixed unions, which could then represent virtually all workers in a particular plant.

Many of the member unions of the Federation of South Africa Trade Unions (FOSATU) have applied for government recognition as "nonracial" unions, and are awaiting a reply from Pretoria. A "yes" answer, officials say, could help in reducing racial tension in the work place.

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