End to S. Africa `pass laws' tests climate for black-white dialogue

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If any of South Africa's contemplated ``reforms'' can begin to undercut black unrest, it is Wednesday's scrapping of the hated ``pass system.'' The move could amount to a crucial test of the political climate. The question is whether this change in apartheid will pave the way for meaningful black-white dialogue, or whether the polarization between the races has progressed so far that there is no common ground left.

Yet, even as the change in the pass laws was announced, the minister of law and order proposed a bill in Parliament widening police powers to deal with political unrest. Violence flared anew Tuesday night in Alexandra, a black township near Johannesburg.

The step to ease the statutory restrictions on where blacks can live, work, and travel -- detailed at a news conference in the Parliament building here -- was hedged with talk of new, less explicit controls. It also stopped far short of meeting demands by black leaders for the wholesale dismantling of apartheid -- racial segregation and white-minority rule.

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Officials said the government had no plans to meet either of those demands anytime soon.

Mere inertia seems to rule out any immediate halt to the anti-apartheid unrest that has rocked one black community after another for the past 20 months, claiming nearly 1,500 lives.

Still, the pass-law announcement is one of the most significant retreats from apartheid so far. The pass laws limited the right of blacks -- who are still barred from living in the white cities -- to move to the cities where most of the jobs exist. Even blacks that were allowed to live in the so-called white urban areas were often not permitted to have their families join them. Adult blacks had to carry passbooks indicating eligibility for being in a certain area -- and to produce them on the spot for inspectors who cruised city streets in mini-vans, sometimes instigating violent raids.

An estimated 18 million blacks have gone to jail for pass-law offenses this century.

Wednesday's announcement said such arrests would end immediately. Blacks' passbooks would henceforth function as mere identity documents. A new ``common ID'' for all races would be issued. Meanwhile, blacks would no longer have to carry the passbooks or produce them on demand.

The three government ministers who held the news conference also released 73 pages of detail on a substitute policy for ``orderly urbanization,'' making it very clear that there are limits to the change.

Migration by blacks into urban townships will still be restricted -- by anti-squatter, slum-clearance, and public-health laws. A severe shortage of housing for blacks could limit their ability to move to the cities.

Some gradual migration will be allowed, said Chris Heunis, contitutional development and planning minister. But he added: ``People in our rural areas should not live under the false impression that the grass will be greener and the lights brighter in the cities immediately. They will be ill advised to flock to the cities en masse.''

Likewise, the new ID for South Africans will still indicate the bearer's race. Segregated cities and suburbs will remain segregated.

But one Sowetan told this reporter, ``For those of us already here, I'd have to say the change is an improvement -- if they do what they say. It is important to know a policeman isn't going to stop me and ask for my pass.''

In a surprisingly mild editorial after last week's preliminary announcement of the pass-law change, a Soweto newspaper said the move would ``affect the person who matters most -- the man in the street.''

The paper was skeptical over the new ``urbanization'' policy, but added: ``It would be silly of us to say this [just] is another smoke-screen for [the] government.''

The new police-power bill gave the law and order minister power to declare ``unrest areas'' and then impose regulations needed to combat violence. Regulations can also be declared outside unrest areas if needed, according to the bill.

Helen Suzman, law and order spokeswoman of the opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP), said the bill was an attempt to declare a state of emergency without calling it that.

A young militant from Tembisa, another township near Johannesburg, responded to Wednesday's news with mixed feelings. Yes, he said, it was good. ``But it is a trick as well -- an attempt to divert blacks from the struggle for more fundamental rights, like the right to vote and to rule in our own country.''

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