Fearing removal to homelands, S. African `squatters' dig in heels

The rioting that swept through South Africa's large black squatter settlement Crossroads during the past two days, leaving nine dead, may be an early warning signal of a more explosive confrontation to come. The South African government, despite its recent moratorium on the forced resettlement of blacks pending a review of the policy, is firmly committed to removing the blacks at Crossroads. Squatter camps are not covered by the morato-rium.

But the 65,000 blacks living in Crossroads, or at least a substantial portion of them, are digging in their heels. Although their corrugated metal shelters -- which are patched with canvas, supported by tree limbs, and lined with pages from magazines -- appear makeshift, Crossroads has become a community with roots.

A fear that the removal was imminent prompted blacks in Crossroads to take to the streets on Monday, throwing up burning barricades and attacking any vehicles that ventured near the sprawling settlement southeast of Cape Town. The South African police retaliated with tear gas, rubber bullets, and shotgun fire, alleging that in at least one incident they were shot at by blacks.

Yesterday, Crossroads was quieter, but there was continuing violence both there and in nearby black townships. Residents seemed somewhat placated by assurances from South Africa's minister of cooperation, development, and education, Gerrit Viljoen. He claimed that the removal of Crossroads would not take place ``immediately.''

But some critics of the planned removal find the government's statement not at all reassuring. Ray Swart, a member of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, says the government's assurance that the move would not be made ``immediately'' was ambiguous and inadequate.

Mrs. R.N. Robb of the Black Sash human rights organization in Cape Town says speculation that a removal was imminent was sparked by the appearance near Crossroads in recent days of 500 to 700 men. The people of the settlement feared that the visitors were there to act as a demolition crew. The men are being housed at Khayelitsha, the government-built housing scheme that is meant to accommodate the blacks now living in Crossroads.

``It looks as if something is afoot, but nobody really knows what,'' says Mrs. Robb.

To resist the feared removal, blacks in Crossroads met last weekend and decided that adults would stay home from work and students from school on Monday in order to prevent the government from coming in and destroying their shelters.

Robb, who has worked closely with the Crossroads community, sees no easy solution for Crossroads. On the one hand, the continuing rapid increase in the population of Crossroads and a number of satellite squatter camps poses real health and safety hazards that justify efforts to rehouse the blacks, she says. (Black Sash nevertheless feels that blacks should only move voluntarily to new housing.)

But Robb notes that squatter settlements like Crossroads are a natural consequence of the government's segregationist policies and stringent restrictions on the number of blacks that can legally move into cities like Cape Town.

Many blacks in Crossroads and the other nearby squatter settlements are from the Transkei and Ciskei ``homelands,'' where they cannot find work. But they are not allowed by the government to come legally to Cape Town. Consequently, there is no proper housing available for these blacks.

Some of the ``squatters'' who are already in Cape Town have been granted the right to live there. But because there is no housing available for them, they are forced to live in a squatter camp.

Last year the government took steps that will ease some of its restrictions on blacks in the Cape Town region. The government announced it will do away with its so-called Colored labor preference policy. This policy stipulates that no black person may be employed in the region unless there is no Colored (person of mixed-race descent) available for the job.

While applauded as a progressive step, the scrapping of the Colored labor preference policy may in the short term entice more blacks from the homelands to come to Cape Town.

Khayelitsha (the name means ``our new home'') is supposed to be part of the solution. This new community of cement-block homes is planned to accommodate 250,000 blacks.

Already some 600 families from Crossroads have moved to Khayelitsha of their own accord.

But many of the residents of Crossroads are adamant they will not move. They are critical of Khayelitsha -- of the amenities and its distance of about 25 miles from Cape Town -- and say they want the government to abide by a promise it made in 1980 to build them a new township near where they now live.

The squatter population near Cape Town is now mushrooming, and a final showdown between the government and the squatters may be looming, say some analysts.

Robb says the only answer lies in ``roundtable discussions'' between the two parties.

But she worries that the problem has festered for so long, and the blacks have become so bitter that ``it is almost impossible to negotiate.''

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