S. Africa whites adjust. Rising numbers grudgingly accept change

The numbers tell the story -- of a society in anguish. More and more South African whites seem to be coming to terms with the idea of sharing public facilities, schools, neighborhoods, and even power with the country's black majority.

But most don't seem to like it one bit. And the angry, sometimes violent, minority of whites intent on resisting change is growing.

This is the picture emerging from a series of opinion polls published here. It may also help explain the government's oscillation between pledges of ``reform'' and the much tougher approach that has predominated in the past few days. [South African raids on neighbors deal blow to Commonwealth peace initiative. Story, Page 7.]

The pollsters agree that a growing number of the country's roughly 4.5 million whites are lining up behind President Pieter W. Botha's moves to chip away at the apartheid system begun by his National Party some 35 years ago. There are signs, too, that more whites are ready for further steps on that road.

The most recent sample -- a comparison of white opinion in 1981 and 1986, commissioned by the pro-government Rapport newspaper -- showed a leap in acceptance of at least some form of further racial integration.

One litmus test used was the Group Areas Act, a 1950 law that classified residential areas by race. The act has led to forced removal of at least 126,176 families from previously mixed areas.

The Rapport poll, which appeared Sunday, showed that slightly more than half of the white respondents were ready to let at least individual neighborhoods decide to integrate. In 1981, only 36.6 percent favored this. About 25 percent favored desegregating schools -- up from 11 percent in 1981.

Another sampling, by an independent research council that presented the results at a seminar last week, asked whites whether they wanted schools kept segregated. Sixty-three percent said yes, down from 74 percent a year ago.

There was a weightier move toward acceptance of blacks in Parliament, from which they've been excluded. A year ago only 25 percent of respondents favored a change. Now, the total is 42 percent.

The poll showed about 70 percent of whites still identified white-minority rule as the ``ideal'' form of South African government, but felt this was unworkable and thus favored ``power sharing.''

``We can deduce,'' said the researcher who presented the findings, ``that if the government continues dismantling . . . apartheid structures in terms of human rights, there won't be the [right-wing] backlash we fear.''

But the government, and at least some other researchers, don't seem so sure of this.

A local newspaper poll in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg -- where officials have turned a blind eye to the ``illegal'' arrival of many nonwhites -- showed strong support for a formal end to Group Areas curbs there. But within minutes of publication, the editors were swamped with calls from residents opposing such a change.

The national sample published in Rapport hinted at similar backlash. It showed that even the growing ``pro reform'' sentiment left a majority opposed to wholesale dismantling of apartheid.

Such a shift, however, has become the minimum demand of most black South African leaders.

The Rapport poll also detected increased support for the major antireform party -- the Conservative Party.

Although many respondents favored the principle of mixed neighborhoods, less than one-third said they personally wanted to live next door to one of the country's 22 million blacks.

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