South Africa's Archipelago; Strangers in their own land

Percy Hlope speaks in calm, measured tones about the threat. A white farmer has closed off access to a spring where some of the villagers of Matiwane's Kop have traditionally drawn their water. If they don't stop coming on his land, he has warned, he will put poison in the water.

"When we asked him why," says Mr. Hlope, "he told us, 'don't blame me.Blame God, who made you black and me white.'"

The adherent of that distorted theology was simply stepping up the pressure on the residents of Matiwane's Kop to get off the land their forebears had purchased in the 1870s.

He need not have resorted to such a crude tactic. The South African government will see to it that Mr. Hlope -- along with 12,000 other Zulu people -- is moved off the land. And it will be done in a perfectly legal and orderly manner.

For Matiwane's Kop is a village of black people in an area that the South African government has set aside for whites only. So it will be moved. It is as simple as that.

Matiwane's Kop is, in government parlance, another "black spot" that must be erased to help make South Africa predominantly white. The white-minority government has already started painting large numbers on the dwelling here, a sure signal that they are slated for demolition.

The government is preparing a relocation camp in a tribal reserve somewhere to the east of here. The people of Matiwane's Kop will be trucked there -- and left on bare ground to begin rebuilding their lives.

But Mr. Hlope doubts that will be possible. Gazing over the rolling hills surrounding his modest house, watching the afternoon autumn sun bathe the cattle grazing in waist-high grass, Mr. Hlope says, "I don't dream of leaving. I don't imagine having a place better than this one.

"The main thing," he says of the white officials planning his uprooting, "is that they want to deprive us of the land."

And they will probably succeed, too. For the government has forced the relocation of between 2 and 3 million black people over the past two decades in an effort to bring about apartheid -- racial separateness -- in this multiethnic nation. And despite the government's claims to be entering a new era of racial reconciliation, it continues to shunt black people into tribal reserves and, in many cases, turn their land over to whites.

It amounts to one of the largest forced migrations of people in recent history. And yet it is barely visible.

To find evidence of it, one has to travel to the remote rural areas of South Africa. Just below the country's northern border, for example, there is a sprawling agglomeration of people called Indermark. For four miles, Indermark stretches into the desolate bush country of the northern Transvaal Province. No industries or major businesses line its rutted red-dirt streets, only a few small trading stores and gas stations -- and row upon row of shanties. Some families, newly arrived, are living in green canvas tents.

Indermark could easily be missed by someone passing on the nearest road. So could Onverwacht, another huge relocation camp in the Orange Free State Province. Hidden in a valley outside the town of Thaba Nchu, some 100,000 people are living in squalor, with only bucket latrines for sanitation.

And then there is Oxton, where another 20,000 to 30,000 black people are jammed onto a wedge-shaped piece of ground in the remote stretches of the Ciskei tribal reserve. Most live in crude mud-and-plank houses, with only the most rudimentary sanitary facilities.

And outside the town of Ladysmith, in Natal Province, there is Ezakheni, a violent place of tin huts and cinder-block houses where many of the residents are afraid to venture out after dark. One unwilling inhabitant, Elliot Mngadi, says of the smoke-palled ghetto in which he is forced to live, "If you come into a place like this, you're going straight into hell."

Yet all of these areas have been created as a result of a deliberate policy of the South African government. Its apartheid ideology holds that South Africa's 24 million people do not constitute one nation. Instead, white officialdom holds that they must be split into separate ethnic nation-states, with each black group occupying a separate tribal eclave. (More than 80 percent of South Africa's land is reserved exclusively for whites, who constitute just 17 percent of the population.)

In cases where black people don't live in the area set aside for their particular tribe, "you need to relocate some people," explains J. L. Serfontein, director of political development for the government's Department of Cooperation and Development.

According to him relocation of people is simply a process by which a nation is shaped, and black people are helped to achieve their own destiny in their own distinct area.

That, at least, is the theory. But a number of government critics say the reality is quite different.

"These relocation areas sound so super," says one researcher, "to people who don't know what they really are."

It is not easy, however, to find out what they "really are."

For one thing, precious little official information about relocation is available. When this reporter asked for relevant documents from the Department of Cooperation and Development, the only thing forthcoming was a four-page photocopied position paper. It was heavy on ideology -- and short on facts.

There is not much statistical information available from other sources, either, and what little exists is often dated. In this report, we have attempted to use the most recent information available.

On-the-spot research is also complicated. In many cases, the relocation camps ae in out-of-the-way areas. They are rarely visible from main roads, and missing from most maps. The south African government has closed many of them to the public; others are accessible only with government permission, which is rarely granted.

To the untrained observer, a few of these relocation areas could perhaps be mistaken for ordinary African settlements. Residents have been allocated fair-sized tracts. They have erected traditional thatched-roof huts, and grow a few crops and raise cattle and goats.

But these places are exceptional. Untold hundreds of thousands of Africans -- one university researcher pegs the figure as high as 3.7 million -- are jammed into what are called "closer settlements." Families in them are placed in unnaturally close proximity, on small plots of land (35 by 20 yeards is an approximate size). And even though these camps are often surrounded by empty stretches of land, the people in them are usually forbidden to grow crops or keep livestock. In this manner they are forced to seek work in the "white" cities.

Thus, many of these camps stand out as overcrowded ghettos in the middle of vast open land. And there is another telltale indicator that they are not normal settlements, but the creations of white planners in Pretoria: small metal toilet enclosures, at the back of each plot, are set out in precise gridwork rows snaking over the terrain.

These toilets and, sometimes, a 12-by-14-foot corrugatedmetal hut or green canvas tent are often the only physical things that newly arrived camp dwellers find on their plots.

But there is something else waiting for them, according to numerous experts: a decidedly bleak future.

Indeed, after visiting relocation camps in all of South Africa's provinces and interviewing dozens of residents, academicians, agricultural experts, and church workers, it is hard to disagree with that conclusion.

True, there are some instances where black people have willingly moved without resistance. And sometimes black people are moved into model villages, with facilities far superior to those in their old locales. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.

For the most part, with relatively few exceptions, the ethnic reserves into which the South African government is squeezing million of black people are overcrowded enclaves of squalor, disease, and poverty, largely populated with dispirited, suffering people.

The hard evidence:

* Poverty: When black people are moved to relocation areas, "their real incomes generally drop quite substantially," according to Michael Whisson, professor of anthropology at Rhodes University.

As a result of surveys at the Glenmore relocation camp near Grahamstown, "We estimated that the real income of people was halved as a result of the move," says Professor Whisson.

That meant that monthly income plummeted to only 30 rand (about $36), far below the officially defined poverty line.

Since they are often far from cities -- and job opportunities -- unemployment is common in the resettlement areas conducted by the Surplus People's Project (SPP) found that nearly 1 in 3 people in them was unemployed.

Nor is there much chance for employment in the tribal reserves (euphemistically called "homelands" or "national states") surrounding the relocation areas. A 1975 study, for example, found that only 14.8 percent of blacks entering the job market could find work in the reserves. In fact, they are so impoverished that from 1970 to 1976, not a single one of the nine (now 10 ) tribal reserves managed to produce even 1 percent of South Africa's gross domestic product.

Consequently, many relocation camp dwellers must take up jobs in "white" South Africa. Some become daily commuters. (Government planners, in deciding where to site relocation areas, assume that 70 miles is a reasonanble one-way daily commute for black people.) Others, especially those shunted deeper into the reserves, are forced to take up migratory labor, despite the well-documented shattering effect of that practice on black family life.

The SPP surveys also indicate that in the eight relocation areas studied, an average of 65 percent of the employed males were migrant laborers. And, with so many men away, fully half the households were headed by women.

Even so, households supported by migratory laborers are fortunate, in relative terms. The SPP surveys indicate that one-third of the households headed by women contained no wage earners. The same is true of one-tenth of the male-headed households. That suggests that literally hundreds of thousands of people in the relocation areas have no regular source of wage income at all.

* Health problems.

Reliable statistics on malnutrition and infant mortality ae hard to come by. In 1976, the government simply stopped reporting the incidence of malnutrition-related diseases in the country. Some medical experts say the figures were simply too telling.

A 1978 study in the Ciskei, for example, found that fully half the two-and three-year-old children were malnourished. Dr. Trudi Thomas, a medical doctor in the area, estimates that 1 in 10 children in the Ciskei's urban areas and 1 in 6 children in the rural areas are suffering from malnutrition-related diseases.

Other reports suggest a similar situation in the other reserves. In one hospital in the Zulu tribal reserve, a reported 75 percent of the children admitted are malnourished. At the King Edward VII Hospital in Durban, on the edge of the Zulu reserve, it is between 45 and 50 percent.

Of course, some children simply do not live long enough to form a part of those statistics. Some reports indicate the infant mortality rate in some black rural areas runs about 200 per 1,00 babies during the first year of life.

The South African government disputes such figures, citing its own 1978 statistics of 95 deaths per 1,000 babies. That figure, however, includes all black children, including those in urban areas, where health care is presumably better. Even so, the figure is six times as high as the white infant mortality rate in this country.

Overall mortality rates for resettlement camps are virtually nonexistent, forcing researchers to rely on their own subjective impressions. Professor Whisson, for example, calculated that a "normal" mortality rate in the Glenmore resettlement camp would result in no more than two deaths per week. But on two random visits he found the eight people had died during one week and three during another.

Of course, those could have been exceptional weeks. But similar reports from other resettlements camps point to a common pattern. In the Onverwacht camp, for example, a minister reports four to five funerals in his church each week -- a figure far higher than before the congregants were moved to Onverwacht.

Even now, health authorities are combating an outbreak of cholera, blamed on bad drinking water and poor sanitation, that afflicted 884 people and claimed 16 lives last year. KaNgwane, the Swazi tribal reserve in the eastern Transvaal Province, has been the area hardest hit by the disease.

As early as 1968 the Rev. Cosmas Desmond, in a study of the Limehill resettlement camp in northern Natal Province, noted that the population growth rate of Zulus forced to move there was less than half the average of Zulus elsewhere. But a more recent (1975) study has singularly chilling implications for the Zulu, one of Africa's proudest peoples. After surveying 150 families in the Nqutu area of Zululand, two researchers warned that "poverty and malnutrition are so rife that the traditional Zulu physique is changing: The [ Zulu] in the area are becoming a puny, stunted, and mentally enfeebled people."

* Overcrowding and accompanying social problems.

In the decade from 1960 to 1970, the population of the black reserves soared upward more than 57 percent -- much of the increase due to forced relocation of black people into them. the reserves are hopelessly overcrowded when compared with the white portions of the country. In 1970, for example, the average density of the reserves was 119 people per square mile. In white South Africa, it was only 35.

Today, the Ciskei reserve has an estimated density of 326 people per square mile. And if the white government could somehow jam all South Sotho people into QwaQwa, the tiny reserve allocated to them, the density would be a staggering 7, 113 persons per square mile. The South African government is constantly pushing to declare the reserves "independent." If it succeeds with QwaQwa, it would instantly create, statistically at least, the most densely populated "country" on earth.

The people living in these overcrowded reserves are often trucked in from disparate areas, and are virtual strangers to one another. Researchers often report a lock of cohesiveness or sense of community in most relocation areas.

The alienation is manifested in two contradictory ways: either withdrawal into apathy -- or explosion into violence.

In the Glenmore camp, says Professor Whisson, there is a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. By contrast, a community worker describes Onverwacht camp as a violent, crimeridden place where a minor incident -- such as a dog straying onto someone else's plot -- can quickly escalate into a savage confrontation.

That is somewhat understandable, Professor Whisson says.

"It's much easier," he explains, "to beat up another impotent [person] -- you feel like at least you've won one for a change -- than it is to take on the government authorities, when you know you're going to lose every time."

Nowhere is the violence more evident than in the Msinga district of the Zulu tribal reserve, an area into which tens of thousands of people have been forced to move. Over a century ago a local official warned the area was overcrowded, but the South African government has steadily pushed more people into it.Today, it is a poverty-racked, stone-strewn wasteland.

The area is plagued by what is called "faction fighting." Many whites dismiss these clashes as simply intratribal grudge matches among the Zulus, who have a long history of aggression.

But a white agricultural worker disagrees. "Faction fighting, by and large, is quite clearly an land issue," he says, the result of rival groups laying claim to an area that is inadequate to support either of them. One report indicates that over the past two years, 827 men have been killed and 1,636 houses burned down as the conflict continues.

* Land degradation.

There is another result of overcrowding in the reserves: degradation of the land.

As black people struggle to eke a hardscrabble existence from the reserves, they place severe pressure on the land. The largely uneducated rural populace often uses poor farming techniques. That, coupled with widespread overgrazing, depletes the soil, strips the ground of protective vegetation, and speeds up erosion. Consequently, many of the country's reserves are today scarred with deep gullies and bereft of topsoil.

Not surprisingly, food production in the reserves has been declining for decades. A recent report of the Black Sash women's organization notes that "in 1958, 250,000 tons of maize were produced, and in 1968, 151,000 tons -- a 40 percent decline."

There have been plenty of warnings about the deleterious effects of overcrowding and overgrazing. In 1955 a government commission warned that 51 percent of the land in the black reserves was overstocked.

The white government's response?Force, by government fiat, many black people to sell their livestock -- and continue jamming more people onto the land.

For example, an agricultural worker (who asked not to be named) notes that in the newest tribal reserve, Kwandebele, some 20,000 black people have been moved on to farms once occupied by only five white families.

"Obviously, the land collapses under that kind of pressure," he notes.

Accordingly, many of the Ndebele people who have been relocated to their new "homeland" have given it a bitter sobriquet: "The place with no grass."

KwaNdebele is no exception. In the Ciskei, for example, a commission recently found that only 23 percent of the land is free of soil erosion, and nearly half is considered moderately or severely eroded.

Of course, forcing more people into the reserves only exacerbates the problem. Nancy Charton, a political scientist at Rhodes University, warns that unless there is a total moratorium on relocation of people into the Ciskei, the area will become a desert within a decade.

In other areas the crisis point has already been reached, according to the agricultural worker mentioned earlier.

"It's not a matter of two to three years down the road. The homelands have already collapsed as far as viable agricultural production is concerned."

"It's a situation where too many people are being forced to live off the land ," he adds.

"These rural areas have become the end of the line under the apartheid design , where people are dumped -- and kept."

Tomorrow: "Don't think we like moving people about"

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.