Johannesburg — Stephen is a black resident of Johannesburg's richest white suburb. By being there he breaks the law. But neither his neighbors nor the local or national government seem to mind. He is one of dozens of people in recent months to violate the Group Areas Act, which requires residential segregation and is a pillar of South Africa's apartheid system. Not all the lawbreakers have fared as well as Stephen. Others have had rocks thrown through their windows, dead animals left on their doorsteps.
But many of the interlopers have been tolerated, or welcomed. And President Pieter W. Botha seems to be groping for a way to endorse an erosion of Group Areas without eroding his power base. During the last two years, unrest has increasingly brought his ruling party under attack from rival parties on the far right.
Repeal of the law still seems out of the question. Most of the whites who have kept Mr. Botha's National Party in office since 1948 live in more modest neigborhoods than the one that welcomed Stephen, a foreign bank executive.
The income of most South African blacks would not allow them to live in any white area. But there is a class of blacks that could afford the more modest white suburbs if the Group Areas Act were to be repealed. And it is in these neighborhoods that nonwhites have faced the fiercest resistance.
At a recent National Party congress, Botha vowed that Group Areas would survive, but opened the door to more ``flexible'' application of the law. His government still holds to the general principle of separate communities for South Africa's racially defined ``population groups'' -- white, black, Indian, and mixed-race ``Coloreds.'' And plans are afoot to build a new black ``township,'' like Soweto, northwest of Johannesburg.
``It is a cloudy situation,'' says Stephen's real estate agent. ``But as long as the residents of a neighborhood don't object, the government seems to be turning a blind eye to Group Areas violations. . . . Most estate agents are ignoring the act completely. . . .'' No matter what color the buyer is, ``the money is all the same,'' the agent says.
For nonwhites with the will and cash to try, violating Group Areas can be costly. In one whites-only area, a real estate agent quoted an Indian a cool 1 million South African rands -- $500,000 -- for a home on a small eighth-of-an-acre plot.
Lawyers, too, are doing a brisk business. They draw up deals to allow the purchase of homes through white ``nominees,'' or via dummy ``closed corporations.''
Mohan, an Indian, has bought a home in Midrand, a white suburb 15 minutes north of here. He has spent 18 years working his way up the economic ladder -- from supermarket clerk to manager of three exclusive fruit-and-vegetable shops in Johannesburg's white suburbs. ``I don't actually own the stores,'' he says. ``I'm not allowed to'' -- under a separate statute being relaxed in some areas. ``I set up a corporation, in which a white partner technically owns a 51-percent share.''
But recently, says Mohan -- who asked that his real name not be used -- ``I decided I had every right to move out of a two-bedroom apartment in my `Indian' neighborhood.'' He arranged purchase of his new home ``through a white nominee.'' Mohan's neighbors, he says, ``have been wonderful. . . . Every one of them has phoned and said if I had any trouble, be sure to call on them.''
Yet, change will not come overnight. Midrand is not far from the planned site for the new black township. Officially called Norweto (Northwest Township), whites have dubbed it ``Norghetto.'' Although black leaders oppose the plan as a reassertion of apartheid, whites have objections of their own.
``Property values? Crime? Pollution?'' asks one poster. ``Another Crossroads?'' it adds, in a reference to a sprawling black squatter camp near Cape Town.
In some neighborhoods, similar questions have been raised when nonwhites moved in. ``They see the end of Group Areas as a threat,'' says one real estate agent interviewed. ``I know an Indian gentleman who spent a lot of money to move into a house in a white neighborhood, only to have stones thrown through his window. Then, neighbors poisoned his dog.'' He is moving out.
Under the tide of opposition to Norweto, the government has announced that it is extending the period for public comment on the plan for another two months.
On the issue of integration of white neighborhoods, the government seems more open to change. Botha has turned the matter over to his extraparliamentary President's Council. A report is expected soon and, says one National Party source, ``could lead to acceptance of more `gray' residential areas, or of endorsement of decisions by particular neighborhoods to integrate.''
In a recent circular, the government body regulating real estate companies -- the Estate Agents' Board -- noted that Group Areas remained on the books and should be heeded. But, says an official on the board, ``this was in response to complaints about violations -- a way of serving notice that agents should be aware that technically we are required to act on such questions.''
He adds that not one of the offending agents has been disciplined. ``We're in a delicate position. We are trying to handle the issue as quietly as we can, not to make a big public issue of it.''
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.