S. African blacks face joblessness, overcrowding in 'resettlement area'

A flatbed truck bounces down a brown-dirt back road, carrying a young woman, her four children, and their meager belongings. As night falls, the family will be left on a small patch of barren ground, joining over 100,000 black people who have been moved to an isolated stretch of rural South Africa called Onverwacht.

Onverwacht is a "resettlement area," to which black people are moved -- often against their will, and sometimes forcibly -- in furtherance of the South African government's master plan to bring about apartheid -- separation of the races -- in this white-ruled country.

Even as the government talks of reform, the resettlements continue, and scores of sprawling rural slums are rising in the isolated hinterlands of this country.

Onverwacht, like most resettlement areas, is out of sight of the nearest main highways. It does not appear on road maps and there is no sign marking the way here.

But in a depression between rolling hills in the Orange Free State Province, thousands of black people are living in crowded slum conditions. Their corrugated iron shacks and mud huts are sited on 45-by-90-foot plots -- too small even for subsistence farming.

The South African government claims there are some 65,000 people living here. Other observers place the true figure at double that -- and growing. A church worker sums up Onverwacht's problems succintly:

"Fifty percent of the people are unemployed. There's water shortages. There's no proper housing. And malnutrition is widespread."

And yet this troubled place was deliberately created by the white government here.

The South African government claims that this country's 16 million black people actually constitute some 10 different "nations." Accordingly, it has established 10 different tribal reserves for each of the country's main black ethnic groups, with the aim of eventually declaring them "independent" of South Africa.

Onverwacht is apparently destined to become part of one of these reserves, called Qwa-Qwa. For the moment, however, it is administered by the South African government.

The government has forced many of Onverwacht's residents to come here -- either by direct coercion or simply by closing off other options to them. For example, a number of people came here only after the government included their former homes in the boundaries of yet another tribal reserve.

There are virtually no employment opportunities in Onverwacht, forcing some laborers to catch buses -- which leave as early as 3:30 a.m. -- for jobs in the "white" city of Bloemfontein, about 35 miles distant.

Still, these commuters are counted among the fortunate of Onverwacht. South Africa's rigid "influx control" laws tightly limit the movement of black people to the cities, and many Onverwacht residents lack the requisite government-issued "pass" allowing them to work in nearby urban areas.

Those left behind form a somewhat desperate labor market from which local white farmers and businessmen can pick and choose. Long queues at the local employment bureau are common each morning.

Most of the wages are not only earned outside Onverwacht, but spent there as well, since there are few retail shops here. There is a booming trade in wood and coal, however, since the surrounding land is virtually barren of firewood. Some women trudge for miles to gather bundles of sticks for cooking and heating.

The search for water is not as difficult, since the government has installed a number of communal taps across the settlement. Still, a water storage system is only now nearing completion -- raising the hope that Onverwacht's periodic water shortages soon will be at an end.

There is no sewer system here. The government instead builds small corrugated-metal enclosures for bucket toilets on each plot. Rows of these now snake up a hillside near Overwacht, suggesting that the government may have plans to move even more people here.

Even now, overcrowding is common. One two-room shanty visited by this reporter was home to 16 people. A number of people still live in green canvas tents loaned by the government to new arrivals, giving stretches of Onverwacht the appearance of a refugee camp.

The overcrowding and squalid conditions have taken a human toll. Tension runs high here, according to many residents, and even minor quarrels sometimes escalate into violence.

"The people don't love each other. There's no peace here," says one woman.

Yet others say they are relieved to be here. One man recounted a number of times his family was forcibly uprooted from white-owned farms, then observed that at least that will not happen here.

And the prospect that this densely packed patch of earth may some day be declared "independent" of South Africa is troubling.

"There's not enough land," he complained. "There's no way the people can survive."

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