Squatter evictions upset white S. Africans

Doleful black ghettoes in Cape Town ironically called "the sun," "the moon," and "our pride" are the setting for a series of bizarre court cases that are embarrassing and alarming many whites, including supporters of the ruling National Party.

Day after day the cases provide a mirror reflecting some of the harshest aspects of the South African government's policy of apartheid -- enforced social , economic, and political segregation.

The accused are mostly women, often with children, sometimes with babies in their arms. And the courtroom at Langa ("the sun") is often filled with whimpering and sobs.

The women's "crime" is that they have been found and arrested in the Cape Town area without documents proving they have permission to be here.

Most say they cannot get work or food in the remote rural areas where they are supposed to stay, and that they wish to be with their husbands who are often migrant workers in the city on two-year contracts.

This is not good enough for the court. So they are fined between $25 and $55 -- this last figure equivalent to nearly a month's wages for an unskilled domestic servant -- or jailed, or deported.

The cases take usually just a few minutes.

The magistrates who hear the matters say they know all the excuses. But they deny they are callous.

Referring to a woman who said she was in Cape Town because she was "starving in the homelands," one magistrate explained: "I said if she had been starving, I could not see the sense in coming here. If she primarily came here to seek work and had not found it yet, it meant she was also starving in Cape Town."

In court he asked her: "Wouldn't it be better to stay at home where at least you are among your own family and not in a hostile environment?"

By hostile environment he said he meant "an environment where she was hassled by inspectors, where she knew no one, and where she had no fixed abode." She was fined about $60.

Most of the women simply cannot afford to pay their fines, so they go to jail , sometimes with their babies.

Explained an official: "We cannot remove sucklings from their mothers."

Although raids are carried out continuously to round up "illegal" Africans in the urban areas, there has been a major push in Cape Town in the past few weeks. More than 1,000 people have been arrested.

Some of them, evicted from rooms in one of the black townships, have been camping out in bitterly cold weather in the open, sheltering in wretched shacks or even under tree branches and bits of plastic. These have been systematically broken down and removed by government inspectors and police.

When an official was asked how he felt about the raids and evictions in such cold weather, he said that "if it happened in spring, in September, then there would have been an outcry that it was shortly before Christmas. In February, it would have been complained that winter was approaching."

Extensive publicity about the raids, the evictions, and the court cases has provoked a strong reaction in Cape Town among blacks and whites. Church groups, social workers, and opposition politicians have condemned what they call "heartless social engineering," and one has warned that South Africans are "enmeshed in a repulsive web of legislation which has a stranglehold on the life of everyone."

Gifts of clothing, blankets, and food for those left stranded are also piling up.

So far the government has not shown any signs that it is prepared to reconsider its policies.

The motivation for these is the fear that if the regulations are changed, the cities would be "swamped" by blacks from the rural areas.

Nonetheless, it is under tremendous political and moral pressure to revise its policies at least to enable the wives and children of migrant workers to stay with their husbands and fathers in the cities full time, instead of the meagre 72 hours at a time that is allowed at present.

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