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South Africa's Archipelago; Where they put 'surplus' blacks

By Gary ThatcherStaff correspondent of The Christian science Monitor / September 14, 1981

Rooigrond, South Africa

The African sun is just past its zenith and starting a slow descent into a horizon obscured by scrubby thorn trees. For Chief Israel Mokate, it is the measure of another day away from his ancestral home.

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"I want to go back there," he says, his eyes squinting into the distance. "Our fathers' graveyard is there. It's our tradition for the old men to join them. I also want to rest there."

The elderly African chief takes comfort in the belief that there is a place of reverence waiting for him in the collective memory of his people.

His is a faith that has sustained countless generations of his kinsmen, a deeply spiritual union that links Africans, their forebears, and their land.

However, Chief Mokate's wish, sanctioned by centuries of tradition, to "sleep where our forefathers are sleeping" will most likely be denied him -- by a government that he had no part in choosing.

The government is, of course, the white-minority government of the Republic of South Africa. And its policy of apartheid, or racial separateness, aims at the political, economic, and -- insofar as possible -- physical segregation of the races in this African nation.

Apartheid invariably provokes worldwide condemnation. Much of the criticism, however, dwells on the more obvious aspects of racial discrimination here -- the segregated toilets, segregated buses, segregated neighborhoods, and segregated schools in South Africa's cities and towns.

But it is here in the rural areas of South Africa, in places like Rooigrond, where the overreaching design of apartheid is being executed with steely determination, in a manner that is ony vaguely understood in the outside world.

For, over the past 33 years, the South African government has uprooted between 2 and 3 million black people and placed them in impoverished rural tribal reserves. The people involved in this mass relocation were, for the most part, not consulted. Moreover, they have virtually no legal way to oppose what amounts to their own dispossession. The process is continuing even now, and constitutes one of the largest forced relocations of humanity in recent history.

The goal goes beyond the mere physical removal of black people from proximity to whites; the eventual aim is to denationalize them, stripping them of any claim to political rights within South Africa.

Chief Mokate is only one among the masses of black people affected by this policy. He, along with hundreds of his followers, was moved off land the tribe had occupied for generations and placed on a desolate plot of ground here in the far northern part of the country, near the town of Mafikeng (formerly known as Mafeking).

The South African government has plans to do the same thing to perhaps a million more black people.

"This is one of the ugliest aspects of the apartheid policy," says Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the Zulu tribe -- another of South Africa's ethnic groups that has been dispossessed under the apartheid policy.

"Hundreds of thousands of black people are being shunted around as if they were inanimate things."

The ultimate objective: creation of an archipelago of isolated islands of black people, existing within -- and, according to some analysts, providing a labor reserve for -- a predominantly white South Africa.

"There are a lot of archipelagoes in South Africa," posits the Rev. James Palos, a Methodist minister in Johannesburg.

"What we're seeing is a massive system of social engineering," says Dr. Margaret Nash, an Anglican (Episcopalian) Church worker.

"They're creating a storage system -- for people."

Over the past several months, this reporter visited dozens of the islands to which tens of thousands of black people have been forced to move. More often than not, they are in isolated rural areas, far from South Africa's cities and job opportunities. They sometimes lack even rudimentary health and sanitation facilities.