Black and White in Rural S. Africa
Integration proves a bitter task in the countryside, as towns struggle to erase divisions
KOPPIES, SOUTH AFRICA — IF recent events in this farming town 60 miles south of Johannesburg are any guide to the future, plans for blacks and whites to administer their local governments jointly by the end of the year could prove the toughest part of the country's painstaking transition to democracy.
The barriers to integration are more blatant in the countryside than in the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated larger towns and cities.
Koppies, located in South Africa's Orange Free State Province, is typical of many small, rural towns in South Africa's vast interior. Its 1,000 or so white inhabitants and the 500 farmers in the district have enjoyed all the comforts associated with having a local government that serves them: tarred roads, paved sidewalks, running water, water-borne sewer systems, and decent schools and sporting facilities.
But for the 15,000 or so voteless residents of Kwakwatsi, a black township that borders Koppies, life is not so pleasant. People live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in small, poorly maintained stucco houses or wood-and-iron shanties. Most residents are without electricity, and there is no water-borne sewer system.
Blacks and whites meet only in the workplace and in the town's stores, which are dependent for their survival on black patronage. Somehow the people in these two communities, isolated and divided by the legacy of apartheid, must come together and manage their local government jointly.
A national multiparty negotiating forum has issued guidelines for integration, and the government has agreed to introduce legislation by September that would provide for the dissolution of segregated town councils and the creation of nominated joint councils with equal numbers of black and white members, a power-sharing compromise until elections are held. Racism comes to the fore
But there are many obstacles. Right-wing groups from around the country met in Pretoria over the weekend to discuss a nationwide campaign of defiance against government plans to integrate town councils. To advertize the event, the Afrikaner Volksfront, a right-wing umbrella group, printed 1 million pamphlets in which the government plan for joint administration is portrayed as undemocratic and a communist-inspired scheme to redistribute wealth.
Any attempt by black residents to flex their political muscles leads to polarization and, often, confrontation. It fuels white fears that joint administration will lead to a rapid deterioration of their neighborhoods.
Events in Koppies exemplify the rising tension in the South African countryside. Racial anomisities came to a head here following the police shooting of youth activist Solomon Mahlatsi on June 15. The local African National Congress (ANC) branch demanded an impartial investigation into his death and that the policeman who shot him be suspended.
Blacks in Kwakwatsi township decided to call off a protest march on June 16, the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when it became clear that the white community was strongly opposed to it. On June 18, the black community decided on a consumer boycott of Koppies stores in support of their demands. The boycott hit the white-owned stores hard.
Rumors began circulating in Kwakwatsi that the whites were planning to seal off the township until the community agreed to end the boycott. Right-wing farmers and members of the right-wing Conservative Party joined hands on June 28 to impose an illegal blockade.
After two days of talks between officials of the ANC and the white residents of Koppies, it was decided on June 30 to allow a march from the township to the agricultural showgrounds outside the town. Representatives of the black community were to hand over a list of grievances to the local police chief.
Black demonstrators were bused in from outlying areas, and right-wing farmers and members of paramilitary right-wing groups arrived from far-flung districts to "protect" the town.
Armed farmers in khaki uniforms planned military-style maneuvers. Whites whispered that the ANC was activating military cells in the township.
Tension in the black community reached unprecedented levels as residents feared an all-out assault by the farmers. A barn is set ablaze
Shortly after the march reached its destination, a barn at the showgrounds was set on fire, apparently by the demonstrators. This was taken as a declaration of war by the farmers. They barricaded the road and stoned and fired on the buses of black demonstrators. At least five occupants were injured, one of them seriously, although no one was killed.
Later, right-wingers surrounded the township with their vehicles, beaming lights into the dusty streets.
"I was very scared," says the chairman of the ANC's Kwakwatsi branch, Johannes Tladi. "Homes were attacked by white thugs in the presence of police, cars were torched, pigs were killed, and there was gunfire everywhere. It was chaos, and people were terrified."
Although the local peace committee stepped in and negotiated a deal whereby the ANC must review all future plans for protest actions with the committee, the confrontation has brought race relations in this town to the lowest point ever. Resignation to black rule
"I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of joint administration, but you cannot go against the law," says deputy mayor Charl van der Merwe, a National Party councilman and supermarket owner, referring to the laws providing for joint administration.
"I think in the end joint administration will be forced on us," says Kobus Botha, a councillor of the Conservative-controlled town of Viljoenskroon located about 20 miles west of Koppies.
Beneath the bravado and racist rhetoric of the white farmers who vow to protect their property to the last man, there is a discernable degree of resignation to the inevitability of black rule.
Sakkie van der Schyff, who led the blockade of the black township, has started to make peace with a dawning reality that his Afrikaner identity will survive the advent of black rule. Kwakwatsi shanty dwellers recently stole some of his fencing, which borders directly on the township, and let their cattle graze in his sorghum field. He responded by striking a deal with them to allow them to graze in the harvested fields in return for keeping the cattle out in summer.
"I can never leave this place," he says with a trace of emotion as he surveys his harvested field where black workers are picking up grain missed by the harvesting machine. "Maybe what is happening now is a judgment on the Afrikaners because we have strayed too far from God."
Most black residents seem willing to negotiate with white councillors on issues that would bring a gradual upliftment of their areas. Since the ANC was legalized in 1990, communities like Kwakwatsi have dismissed unpopular black councillors who collaborated with the government and formed elected civic associations that negotiate with appointed white administrators.
Local ANC officials concede that there have been marginal improvements in some townships: The electric company has begun supplying homes, a sewer system is on the way, and more land has been made available for housing. Apartheid has been phased out in post offices and such public amenities as libraries.
"I think that if the white councillors are prepared to negotiate in good faith - and not with hidden agendas - we can have a good relationship," says Solly Mayekiso, an ANC official in Kwakwatsi.
"We hope to have one united administration in which we can sit down and solve issues together," he says. "It is not going to be easy, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel."