For nonwhites it's easier to break S. Africa's race laws than find a home
Johannesburg — He stood quietly before the judge's bench, as the magistrate warned him to report back to court in six months' time. It was the fifth time his case had been delayed. Nevertheless, he was relieved.
"It's over for a while longer," he sighed afterward.
But the legal problems of Paul Jacobs (not his real name) will undoubtedly continue for a good while longer. For Mr. Jacobs is, under South Africa's race laws, the "wrong" color. He is a so-called "Colored," a person of mixed race. And he lives in a neighborhood that the South African government has decreed is for whites only.
Government spokesmen claim the 1950 Group Areas Act prevents "friction" when people of different races live next to one another. Critics, however, say it is one of the foundations of apartheid (this country's complex system of racial discrimination) and is racist in both intent and practice.
Over the past two years, white officials have brought charges against some 600 people -- both Colored and Indian --largest city.
Prosecution of these people was held off until two test cases -- one involving an Indian, the other a Colored person --pected, last September the court upheld the government's view that it is illegal for "nonwhites" to live in white areas.
That left those 600 or so people facing charges of which they would almost certainly have been found guilty. They decided to resist the government and formed a nonracial Action Committee to Stop Evictions (Actstop).
The group made a tactical decision: to contest every one of the cases in court, trying up the Johannesburg courts for weeks on end. Some 150 Johannesburg attorneys agreed to handle the cases free of charge.
The government, meanwhile, brought in prosecutors from surrounding areas and cleared the courtroom decks for what appeared to be a looming legal showdown.
So it was that Paul Jacobs found himself standing before the white judge. But, as a result of an out-of-court agreement between Actstop and government prosecutors, the judge delayed the case for six more months. Mr. Jacobs hopes the charges eventually will be dismissed. (So far, the governments has withdrawn charges against 286 people.)
Why did the government back down, at least for the time being?
Theories vary. One is that the white government wanted to prevent the issue from coming into the public eye during the current run-up to general elections. After all, right-wing extremists have made much of the encroachment on white areas by blacks.
Another theory holds that South Africa is already facing pressure at the united Nations over its occupation of Namibia and wanted to avoid further adverse publicity while that body is contemplating imposing economic sanctions.
Whatever the reasons, Paul Jacobs counted the delay as "a battle won," at least for now. He will be able to live in his "white" apartment for another six months while searching for alternative housing in a "Colored" neighborhood. A single man, he is hopeful of finding a new home.
But that will not be easy. By the government's own figures, there are some 10,000 Colored and Indian families on waiting lists for housing in their own "group areas." Some families are doubling, even tripling up in the same abode. Others are living in garages and backyard sheds.
The pressures on these families, says Mr. Jacobs, are enormous. He says cramped living conditions are a contributing factor to children's poor study habits and parents' rocky marriages. Some young people feel they can't even contemplate marriage, he says: "Where would they live?"
For growing numbers, the answer is vacant apartments in the less desirable "white" areas. A sympathetic white usually signs the lease, and the nonwhite tenants try to keep a low profile to avoid arousing complaints from white neighbors.
Nevertheless, the South African police continue to prowl Johannesburg's downtown apartment blocks, searching out "nonwhites," serving them with eviction orders.
"These proceedings are turning decent, law-abiding people into criminals," says Mr. Jacobs' attorney, who is white.
The ultimate solution to the problem, says Mr. Jacobs, is the "total scrapping of the Group Areas Act."
But he does not expect that to happen. "The Group Areas Act forms the whole fundamental base for the apartheid structure," he explains. "If the act should be abolished, apartheid would be abolished. If we could live where we wanted, then apartheid would mean nothing."