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S. Africa's Parliament gears up for battle over squatters

By Humphrey TylerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 1981



Cape Town

There is expected to be a bitter confrontation in the all-white South African Parliament this week when the vigorous young leader of the main opposition Progressive Federal Party, Dr. Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, confronts Prime Minister Pieter Botha over details of government policy.

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The prime minister has already told Dr. Slabbert in Parliament "Just wait, I will get you" during the debate.

For good measure, in another exchange, Dr. Slabbert told Minister of Finance Owen horwood that "you are quite disgusting."

And Mr. Horwood responded portentously that the ruling National Party and the Progressive Federal Party had "come to the parting of the ways" -- a perhaps ominous sounding but rather meaningless remark because the two parties have been on a collision course since the parliamentary session began a few weeks ago.

Indeed, tension between the two main white political parties has probably never been so great before. Nor for that matter has there been quite so much tension and unease for a long time inside the National Party itself.

One immediate reason is the government's handling of black squatters who set up a dismal and squalid encampment ouside Cape Town, just a few miles from Parliament itself.

The government responded by tearing down their shelters, leaving men, women, and babies exposed in bitter, wet winter weather, and harassed the squatters in many other ways as well, in an attempt to drive them back to the remote rural "homelands," where the squatters said they were starving.

After weeks of steadily mounting protest from whites as well as blacks, the government suddenly announced a "new deal" for the squatters and allowed them to erect shelters again while negotiations took place.

But these broke down when the squatters insisted that men would not be prepared to accept jobs if this meant that their families would not be allowed to stay with them -- a fundamental demand by the squatters all along.

In what seemed like a fit of pique, the government suddenly called off any further talks, sent in the police, who rounded up more than 2,000 blacks and sent them back in a doleful convoy of buses to the Transkei "bantustan."

To try to keep them there, the government has since set up roadblocks, turning back of arresting any blacks without the necessary papers showing they are allowed to return to Cape Town. But that is not all.

Some of the squatters evaded the police and have now set up another camp about a mile away from the first site. Whites and other well-wishers are providing food and other comforts for them. Nor will it be the end of the story if these are just rounded up also and sent back to the rural areas.

The government is now being assailed from many sides, including by many of its own supporters, not only for its treatment of the squatters themselves, but because its whole policy toward rural blacks -- who are inescapably being drawn to the cities in search of work and sustence -- appears increasingly unworkable and morally indefensible.

There was even a march on Parliament at the end of last week after a packed special lunchtime church service in the nearby Episcopalian cathedral. Police kept the marchers at bay with long batons and snarling police dogs.

But the minister of police, Louis le Grange, was obliged to accept a petition from the crowd attacking the government's actions.

This week's debate is expected to return to the plight of the squatters and poverty stricken rural blacks generally.

It is also likely to deal with the prime minister's weak and defensive showing earlier in the session when he and a string of Cabinet ministers veered strongly to the right and seemed to deny any hope of fundamental racial reform.