South Africa's Archipelago; Islands of Deprivation

This report has no exact dateline, because this place has no name. It is miles away from the nearest town, down teeth-rattling dirt roads. The land is typical South African bushveld -- covered with scrub brush and thorn trees and infested with baboons.

The nearest town -- if a general store and gas station can be called a town -- is 26 miles away.

Yet venture off the road a bit, into the tangled woodlands, and you'll find some newly erected structures in the undergrowth. They are small, corrugated metal cylinders -- crude toilet enclosures -- set in straight, precise rows.

Why are they out there, on a desolute tract in South Africa's hinterlands?

The answer is chillingly simple; this is a South African government "relocation camp" in the making.

In just over a month's time, hundreds of black people will be left in this isolated wasteland. The only facilities they are likely to find will be a few dusty streets bulldozed into the bush, perhaps a few communal water taps -- and row upon row of metal toilets.

The South African government calls this "resettlement" and says the future residents of this place will be helping to create a fledging country.

Its critics call it "dumping people in a wilderness," in furtherance of a white-supremacist blueprint for radically reshaping a society.

What is undisputed, however, is that the people are being herded here because of something they could not control: the circumstances of their birth. They are members of the North Sotho ethnic group, and the South African government wants them grouped into a tribal reserve called Lebowa.

Lebowa is one of 10 black reserves the white government has set up in this divided country. Although blacks make up seven-tenths of South Africa's population, the reserves collectively account for less than two-tenths of its land area.

The South African government intends to excise these reserves from South Africa by declaring them "independent countries." And, government officials insist, it is necessary to populate these states-in-the-making.

After all, "You can't have a state without people," explains J. L. Serfontein , director of political development of the South African government's a Department of Cooperation and Development.

Mr. Serfontein is one of a number of white officials overseeing the severance of these black reserves in order to create a predominantly white South Africa.

To bring about apartheid, or separation of the races, the South African government has uprooted and relocated between 2 and 3 million black people. It has plans to do the same thing to perhaps a million more.

How the government engineers this mass movement of black people -- and the far-reaching human consequences of its actions -- is the subject of this series of articles.

The government has a wide array of legal devices it can use to compel the uprooting of black people. Before detailing them, however, it must be noted that the forced upheaval of blacks is not a new phenomenon in southern Africa. Historically it has come about as a result of both tribal conflict and colonial conquest.

As far back as the early 1980s, the legendary Zulu chieftain Shaka regularly set his warriors upon neighboring tribes, and touched off waves of frightened refugee migrations across the subcontinent. And in 1902, when South Africa was still a part of the British Empire, the colonial administration confined the Zulus to "native reserves" in the province of Natal.

What is remarkable, however, is that forced movement of black people continues in South Africa even today -- despite abundant evidence of the severe human suffering it causes.

In practical terms, removal to a reserve often means consignment to abject poverty. By virtually every measure, the country's black reserves -- called "homelands," "Bantustans," or "national states" -- are islands of deprivation. A semiofficial research body reports that between 1972 and 1976, less than 3 percent of South Africa's gross domestic product was generated inside the reserves. Per capita income inside them was less than one-tenth that of the average white South African.

As early as 1955 a government commission warned that the black reserves were overcrowded and mired in poverty, with per capita income falling and serious overgrazing causing widespread erosion.

What has happened since that grim warning was issued 26 years ago? The population of the reserves has nearly doubled, white the land area has stayed substantially the same.

Yet the government continues to squeeze more people into these tribal enclaves. And, because of the morass of discriminatory race laws the government has created, there is virtually noi legal way for black people to resist their own uprooting.

What follows is a partial cataloging of the methods this country's white rulers use to compel black people into the reserves. Gerry Mare, a researcher for the South African Institute of Race Relations, has identified several of the legal mechanisms employed. And various organizations -- notably the Black Sash women's organization -- have published estimates of the numbers of black people affected by each category of "removal."

* Enforcement of "influx control" measures:

Under South African law, this country's cities are deemed the exclusive domain of the white minority; blacks are allowed in them only to work.

The government tightly regulates the entry of black people into the urban areas, using what it terms "influx control" laws. Blacks from the rural areas fortunate enough to gain permission to work in the cities are rarely allowed to bring their familes with them. They must register their presence with the government, then submit to a confusing array of curfews and alws controlling their movement.

Government approval of their presence is rubber-stamped in a small reference book -- dubbed a "pass book" -- and black people must carry it with them at all times. South African police routinely conduct random checks of these documents, and any black person unable to produce the requisite "pass" can be summarily arrested.

In one recent predawn "pass raid" in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, police charged a black domestic servant, Esther Majosi, with the "offense" of sharing a room with her husband. The government's records showed he was registered to live in a different servants' quarters just across the parking lot, and not in the same one as his wife.

Fortunately for her, Mrs. Majosi was acquitted of the charges by a magistrate. Her case was exceptional, however. Most of the 200,000 to 300,000 black people arrested each year for violating the pass laws are given only pro formam trials and found guilty. This reporter has witnessed some proceedings lasting only 42 seconds.

Tens of thousands of pass law violators are fined or imprisoned. And hundreds of thousands more are simply shipped back to the black reserves.

On a recent Friday afternoon in Cape Town, for example, shouts of anger mixed with sobs of grief as six busloads of black women were sent back to the reserves. Their husbands, kept under close watch by police in riot gear, watched helplessly as their wives were separated from them.

Such scenes are not uncommon in South Africa. One 1979 estimate was that half a million black people had been ejected from the cities to the reserves for running afoul of the pass laws.

South African government officials insist that influx control is necessary, however. Otherwise, they argue, the cities would quickly become ringed by shantytowns as people flocked in from the rural areas.

That is certainly a possibility. But, in the view of some analysts, that only underscores the need for economc development in the reserves -- so that people would not be so desperate to leave them.

Yet people are desperate to leave them, despite the risk of arrest. Over a one-year period ending in June 1978, for example, 279,957 were picked up by police for being in the cities illegally. More often than not, the government shows them little sympathy.

"We are sharving in the homelands," pleaded a black woman to a white magistrate in Cape Town recently, as she begged not to be shipped back to one of the reserves.

"We are starving in Cape Town," he reportedly shot back. "You can rather starve at home."

Enforcement of influx control measures also gives the government inordinate power over black workers. In. 1980, for example, the Johannesburg city government was faced with a strike by black municiapl workers. Instead of negotiating with union leaders, it simply arrested them -- and shipped some 1, 000 strikers back to the reserves. That effectively crushed the strike.

There mere threat of a similar fate keeps many black workers in line. As Mr. Mare concludes, eviction from the cities in the name of influx control is "the single most important instrument in the control of the African population."

* The elimination of "black spots":

Until 1913, blacks were entitled to own land across much os South Africa. That year, however, the African reserves were created, and black people forbidden to buy land outside their borders. When the borders of these reserves were drawn up, a number of parcels of black-owned land were left outside. That meant they were in the "whites only" part of South Africa, and it was therefore illegal for blacks to continue owning these tracts.

"That's why we can them black spots," says an official of the government's Department of Cooperation and Development, which buys them up and moves the black people off them.

Some of these plots have been farmed by generations of black people. By 1976 , however, an estimated 258,000 blacks had been moved off these "black spots" and relocated in the reserves.

There are an estimated 150 "black spots" still to be eliminated from "white" South Africa. Government officials say this is all to the good, since they claim many of these plots amount to little more than shantytowns.

That is certainly true of some "black spots," like one that sprawls over a dusty hillside outside the town of East London. It is a motley assemblage of ramshackle corrugated metal and wooden hovels, surrounded by barren land.

But an agricultural worker says the appearance is deceiving. The residents, he explains, have been threatened with such an uncertain future, he says, that they have simply lost the incentive to improve their sourroundings.

But some other "black spots" are prosperous African villages, like one near the town of Soekmekaar, in the northern Transvaal Province. Some of the residents have built houses that would not be out of place in a middle-class American suburb. Other dwellings, while decidedly more modest, are nevertheless well maintained, and often surrounded by well-tended flower and vegetable patches. Nearby, fat Afrikander-breed cattle braze alongside neatly planted cornfields.

However, if the South African government has its way, both settlements will be razed -- and the land given over to whites. Black people have to legal way to resist the takeovers, because they, of course, lack the power to change their skin color.

* Removing "labor tenants" and squatters:

Despite the racial zoning in this country, many black people have traditionally resided on white-owned farms, using patches of land to grow their own crops and keep small herds of livestock.

Until the mid-1960s, for example, blacks were allowed to stay on white farms if they provided six months of labor to the owner. This was known as the "labor tenant" system. It undoubtedly gave rise to abuses; children, for example, were sometimes pressed into farm work instead of school to help families pay their "rent." Nevertheless, the system did offer black families a degree of security of tenure, and during the half-year they were not indentured to the white landowner, they often took up other employment.

Throughout the 1960s, however, the government repeatedly sought to reduce the number of blacks living in white farming areas. In 1964 it began outlawing "labor tenancy" in various areas, and in 1969 the ban was applied nationwide. By the end of 1970, an estimated 340,000 black people had been push off white-owned farms when their "labor tenant" contracts expired.

Countless thousands more black tenants who made direct rental payments -- either in the form of cash or livestock, not labor -- were also uprooted during this period. In addition, the government evicted thousands of "squatters" from white-owned land. But in South Africa, "squatter" is a loaded word; it can be applied to black people who have lived their entire lives on the same plot of ground but are suddenly deemed "excess" because of advancing age or mechanization of agriculture.

By then end of 1970, another 656,000 black tenants had been evicted from white farms for various reasons and, with nowhere else to go, were placed in the reserves.

* The relocation of black townships:

South Africa's race laws force many black workers in the cities to live in segregated townships.Sometimes, the government simply chooses to erase these townships from the map -- and force their residents to move to the nearest reserve.

They are often trucked to dormitory settlements just inside the reserve's boundary, and become commuters to their workplaces in white South Africa. By 1970, an estimated 327,000 blacks had been shunted to the reserves in this manner. The process is continuing, reflected in the growing number of blacks shuttling daily between the reserves and the white areas. From 1970 to 1976, the number surged from 290,000 to 638,000.

The South African capital city, Pretoria, for example, is half encircled by the enclave of Bophuthatswana, which the white government insists is an independent country. Each day, thousands of black people cross the imaginary international boundary that divides townships like Ga-Rankuwa and Mabopane from "white" Pretoria.

There are no border posts separating the two "countries," yet even some first-time visitors quickly surmise when the crossing has been made: The smoky cinder-block slums are on the Bophuthatswana side of the line.

But the border serves as more than a racial and economic dividing line. It is a political boundary, too, since the South African government denies blacks living in Bophuthatswana any citizenship rights in "white" South Africa.

* Consolidation of the reserves:

The government repeatedly adjusts the boundaries of the reserves, taking in a new areas and excising others. Often, simply moving the border a few miles one way or the other means the uprooting of tens of thousands of people.

The stated goald of consolidation is to give the reserves coherent borders. For example, the reserve for the Zulu tribe now inclues some 20 amoeba-like pieces. Eventually, the government plans to halve that number.

One traditional Zulu area that will, in effect, be "consolidated" out of existence is a vast tract of land on the Indian Ocean coast coast near the town of Richard's Bay. The area, called "Reserve No. 4," is a sandy expanse of savanna dotted with cattle pastures and traditional African huts.

Tribal leaders say they have farmed the area for over a century and have no idea why the white government wants to move them out. Yet one analyst notes that the tribe's land is already ringed with tree plantations. With the people off the land, she says, large timber companies in the area would be able to expand their holdings and substantially.

Under the government's most recent consolidation plans -- drawn up in 1975 -- an additional 750,000 to 1 million people still have to be relocated. But no one knows if the process will stop there. New plans are being drawn up by a government commission, and that could mean the uprooting of even more black people.

Tomorrow: The areas the South African government doesn't want people to see.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.