A sprightly Afrikaner academic with a mop of gray hair and sparkling eyes has delivered a devastating attack on one of the cornerstones of the South African government's policy of apartheid, or racial segregation.
It comes at an embarrassing time for the ruling National Party -- right in the middle of an increasingly heated general election campaign.
This has not deterred Dr. Erika Theron, herself a longtime supporter of the National Party and a sociologist with impeccable Afrikaner establishment connections, from criticizing the notorious Group Areas Act. The Act is designed to segregate South Africa's various racial groups into separate, racially "pure" residential and business districts.
Dr. Theron says this is cruel and socially destructive, and that the act should be scrapped for the sake of peace and social stability.
A former professor of sociology at the prestigious Stellenbosch University, Dr. Theron is best known for having headed the country's first government-appointed multiracial commission of inquiry, a three-year investigation of the plight of the country's Colored (mixed race) people.
Ironically, too, she once served on the Group Areas Board, which is involved in allocating areas to different races. (Whites come off best most of the time.)
She now says that it was "naive" for her to have done so, but that she thought at the time that separate areas would give the different race groups "wider scope for more effective self-determination" and that it would prevent friction.
She says she now believes the application of the Group Areas Act has frequently "ruined sound human relationships," not least because of white greed and selfishness, and that the law contributes to "riots and disturbances" and that it is a "threat to safety and security."
Opposition politicians and Colored leaders have welcomed Dr. Theron's attack on the act, published in two articles in Cape Town's largest daily newspaper, as being courageous and said they admired her for her "integrity and honesty."
Outside the National Party, the Group Areas Act is one of the most criticized pieces of racial legislation ever introduced in the country. It has led to the mass removal of Hundreds of thousands of people. The great majority of them have been black, Colored, or Asian. Families that lived in some areas for generations have been obliged to get out of their homes because their district has been declared "white." They have suddenly found themselves living illegally in homes they have occupied all their lives.
David Curry, national chairman of the Colored Labor Party, the largest formal political movement in the Colored community, says: "We must remember that Dr. Theron was once a member of the Group Areas Board. She really tried to make the system work and she, more than anyone, is in a position to judge the situation. We think it is tremendously important that she now rejects the Group Areas Act.
"I can assure you that the government can give up all hope of reconciliation with the Colored people (who number about 3 million compared to the 4 1/2 million whites) as long as this legislation is on the statute book."
However, several of Dr. Theron's Afrikaans-speaking academic associates carefully declined to comment, and she is likely to be attacked in certain Afrikaner Nationalist circles. If so, this would not necessarily be for the views she holds but for airing them in public, instead of keeping the argumen t behind closed doors and "inside the Afrikaner family."