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S. African blacks feel trapped, sense no progress in '70s, '80s

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1982


Martha graduated from high school in 1976 - a year when many young blacks took to the streets of Soweto in a massive violent demonstration against the white government of South Africa.

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Much has changed since then for this young, easygoing black woman. She is raising a small child, has held several jobs, and is planning for a university education.

But for Martha, the things that really matter have not changed at all. Spread across the dining table of her Soweto home is a Sunday newspaper filled with articles about the present government's ''reforms'' and plans for ''power sharing.''

Asked about those government initiatives, Martha drops her carefree manner. ''As far as I can see, things just keep going from bad to worse,'' she says.

Blacks in Soweto - particularly those like Martha who were educated in the traumatic '70s - appear to be in a mood of deepening despair. Contributing to this are growing economic hardships, a feeling that state repression is increasing, and what many blacks see as new government efforts to squelch their political aspirations.

These blacks see their political ambitions crushed under the white government's proposed ''power sharing'' system, which would give Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race) a role in the mainstream government, but not blacks.

The expressed frustrations of many blacks that in fact there is no significant change in South Africa is all the more noticeable when contrasted to the growing feeling among many whites that racial reform is under way.

Recent by-elections won by the National Party on Prime Minister P.W. Botha's ''reformist'' plank were read by the liberal Rand Daily Mail to mean: ''The issue for many is no longer whether to change, but simply how, to what degree, and at what pace.''

However, the Sowetan newspaper virtually ignored the elections. ''They were not relevant to black readers,'' editor Joe Latakgomo explained.

Blacks' frustrations seem to be heightened in some ways by the Botha reform plans.

''At least if Dr. (Andries) Treurnicht were the leader, things would come to a head,'' says a young activist from Soweto, referring to the right-wing white politician who split from the National Party earlier this year because of its so-called reformist policies.

''Presently under Botha we feel like we are dying in installments,'' this young Sowetan says. For him, Botha's reforms have not addressed any of the fundamental grievances of blacks. Rather, they are adaptations to prolong white domination.

Mahlomola, a former member of the Soweto students' representative council that was involved in the 1976-77 disturbances and was eventually outlawed by the government, says the government's power-sharing proposals clearly threaten to worsen relations between blacks and other ''nonwhites.''

''We are looking suspiciously at Indians and Coloreds,'' Mahlomola says. Any acceptance on their part of the government proposal will, he says, ''just cement what 'black consciousness' has always said: 'Black man, you are on your own.' ''