Cape Town — The defiance of black squatters and the public outcry from angry whites at the way in which police handled the squatters has forced the South African government to back down.
As a result weary black squatters who have been resisting official attempts to drive them away from Cape Town back to the remote rural "homelands" have won a temporary reprieve.
They celebrated by erecting a huge wooden cross and attending a mass interdenominational religious service in the desolate open fields where they have been hanging on grimly for weeks.
For the first time in weeks, too, they slept undisturbed under shelter in weird constructions made of tree branches covered with sheets of plastic.
Previously, government officials, protected by squads of police, had been tearing down any shacks the squatters put up, burning the materials used for them, leaving men, women, and even small babies without protection in bitterly cold winter weather. Often it has rained.
But an astonishing public protest from whites built up.
Whites defied the police to sneak food into the encampment at night. Other whites took black squatter babies to their own homes in shifts, bathing and feeding them and returning them to their mothers with clean, often brand-new clothes. Other people sent piles of food, and gifts of blankets and clothes.
Some groups of whites spent nights with the black squatters to show their sympathy for them. Newspapers were overwhelmed by letters protesting the harsh government action. Even the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), the major Afrikaans church to which most members of the government belong, said publicly that the government action against the squatters was "hardly Christian." Usually it keeps quiet about political matters.
Finally, after a packed protest meeting in the Cape Town city hall during which speakers condemned the "rotten" and "inhumane" government policy, the Minister of Cooperation and Development, Dr. Pieter Koornhof announced that the squatters would be given a "new deal."
This means that those who have managed to find work in the Western Cape area, even though they are there technically "illegally," will now be made "legal."
Also, Minister Koornhof announced that he and his officials had managed to arrange at least 1,000 jobs for out-of-work squatters in Transvaal province and the Orange Free State province.
He appealed to the squatters to cooperate with the authorities to take advantage of these opportunities, and meanwhile he indicated they would not persecuted.
But that may not be the end of the story.
The main problem is that Dr. Koornhof said he could not guarantee that the wives and families of men working in Cape Town, or those sent to work in the Transvaal or Free State, would be able to remain with their husbands and fathers.
This is a fundamental grievance among the squatters, at least some of whom are working in Cape Town on contract, but who are only allowed by law to have their families visit them for 72 hours at a stretch.
Opposition politicians generally have cautiously welcomed the respite the squatters have been granted.
They say that the confrontation between the squatters and the government in Cape Town, in a field beside a black township called Nyanga, meaning "the moon," is a symptom of the fundamental failure of the National Party government's policy of trying to corral off as many blacks as possible into the remote black "homelands" where there are not enough jobs.
Opposition spokesmen claim that more and more blacks will be drawn to the established cities inevitably, and that the government must accept this and prepare for it, even if it means providing areas where new arrivals can build their own simple shacks, or extend very basic "core" houses to meet their own needs.
They also attack the contract labor system whereby men are separated from their families for long periods, saying that the recent confrontation with the squatters in Cape Town is further proof that it is not only unnatural and immoral to split up families -- but also in the end unworkable.