Free movement in S. Africa

SOUTH Africa's government has taken a forward step of indeterminate length in its announced decision to end ``pass'' laws, a key element in apartheid which severely restricts where blacks can live, work, and travel. If the government follows up the announcement by permitting blacks freedom of movement throughout the nation, it will have been a large step forward.

But if Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's announced substitute, a new urbanization policy, proves to be just another way of restricting blacks, there will be no progress. In the past, apartheid rules, once abolished, have too often been replaced by similarly onerous curbs.

The white paper on urbanization, made public this week, contained encouraging sections, such as its pledge that the government's new urbanization policy will be nonracial. A number of important questions remain unanswered, however, including the way the concepts expressed in the document will be carried out in practice. Critics wonder, for instance, whether the new requirement that blacks must have housing before being permitted into the cities will actually be used to keep blacks out of urban areas. There is a severe shortage of black housing in South Africa's urban areas.

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Lifting the state of emergency earlier this year did not of itself produce an end to black protests. Neither will the cessation of the pass laws. Black South Africans properly seek an end to all racism, not a partial diminution of it. But necessary advances in the rights of blacks should bring the conclusion of the protests closer.

Pretoria should move firmly to dismantle the entire apartheid system, and to provide the country's black majority with full entry into the political process from which it is now excluded.

The Botha government has said that the new urbanization strategy will be worked out by August. Action should be taken more quickly. How the new proposal is carried out will indicate whether its substitution for pass laws heralds significant reform in apartheid, or merely represents another hopeful-sounding statement insufficiently supported by action.

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