Black squatters' plight stirs S. Africa

The South African government's apartheid policies have come home to roost in an astonishing way just a few miles away from the country's House of Parliament in Cape Town.

In an open field dotted here and there with weird makeshift shelters a small group of blacks, mainly women and children, are challenging the government's attempts to force them back to the rural black "homelands."

They say there is no food there, and no work.

The government is equally determined that they should leave Cape Town. Police have been raiding their encampment, tearing down their shelters, and confiscating building materials. Many of the blacks have been taken to court. Some have been jailed. Many have been fined.

But they keep coming back. It is midwinter and it rains frequently. They often keep themselves warm by singing hymns through the night.

Now there are signs that their plight is beginning to touch the hearts of many Cape Town whites.

A group of members of Parliament belonging to the opposition Progressive Federal Party in town for a parliamentary session recently visited the field where the people are grimly hanging on. Churches and other organizations are collecting food, blankets, and medicines for them, and a University of Cape Town faculty member has even designed a special "survival suit" that he hopes will help them withstand the bitter weather.

Led by veteran civil-rights campaigner Helen Suzman, the parliamentarians declared after their visit that the conditions under which the people are living are "appalling."

When the group visited at night, "scores of women and children were huddled together on the open ground crouching under sheets of plastic in pouring rain," Mrs. Suzman said.

"But in spite of their misery, these people sang hymns when they saw us."

She said the situation had arisen because the authorities had failed to provide adequate housing and through adherence to "an obviously inoperable system of trying to keep families apart and driving people back to areas where there is no work."

Now, to thwart the authorities who are demolishing any shacks or other recognizable shelters the people erect, a local senior university lecturer has designed and had made special plastic bags. The blacks line them with blankets, if they have them, or just newspapers, to keep themselves warm. About 100 have been handed out so far. Each recipient is also being given a woollen cap for his or her head.

"Seeing people bedding down in the mud is horrifying," said Dr. Arnold Abramowitz, secretary of the university's Appropriate Technology Group. "People have expressed shock at seeing our society has sunk so low."

Groups of young white church members are trying to give the illegal squatters moral support by joining them at the site through the night.

One reported afterward that in spite of having a water- proof groundsheet, warm clothes, and a blanket, he found the cold unbearable. He said it was more comfortable to try to sleep standing up next to one of the fires that burn all night, rather than to lie on the ground. It was easier to keep awake at night by singing, and to sleep during the day when it is warmer, he said.

He added: "Nowhere could I find any bitterness, although everywhere I looked there seemed reason for it."

The authorities insist that the "influx control laws" which these people are defying are essential to stop urban areas being "swamped" by people from the rural areas, and to "protect" the Africans who are "legally" living in the urban areas from competition for the already relatively few jobs that are open.

There is a high ratio of unemployed Africans in the Cape Town area already, they say.

But observers ask, how bad must the conditions be back home if these "illegal" blacks are prepared to endure the harassment they are receiving here rather than go back where they have come from?

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