Ciskeians unsure if they won when tribal state gained independence

It was 10 months before Mr. G. Mquingwana, a South African black, could bring himself to register the birth of his son. He was attempting, futilely, to resist South Africa's ''homelands'' policy, which stripped his family of its South African citizenship when its tribal state became ''independent'' Dec. 4.

The homelands policy classifies citizens of tribal states according to language. When the Mquingwanas' state, the Ciskei, became independent this month , they and 2 million other Xhosa-speakers lost South African citizenship. They are left with Ciskei passports, which are likely to be turned down at the customs gates of other countries of the world. South Africa's ''independent'' homelands are not recognized internationally.

''It's an inferior status,'' says Mr. Mqingwana.

More than that, says Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash women's organization, ''It means you lose the right to demand a vote'' in South Africa proper.

Blacks cannot vote for the central government in South Africa, although they outnumber whites by more than 4 to 1.

Instead, the South African government has set aside 13.7 percent of its land, divided it into 10 tribal homelands, and ruled that blacks can run their own affairs in the homelands.

Venda, Transkei, and Bophuthatswana preceded Ciskei in taking so-called independence.

Geographically, Ciskei is made up of fragmented pieces of land along South Africa's Indian Ocean coast. As now outlined, it includes about 1.5 million acres. This rolling rural landscape, with scattered greenery, is devoted almost entirely to agriculture. Current estimates based on census figures put the Ciskei population at 1.6 to 2.1 million, of which 666,000 live within the territory.

At the Ciskei government offices, the Rev. W. M. Xaba, second in command, has little patience with the charge that he is helping to deprive Ciskeians of any rights in South Africa:

''No one has real South African citizenship anyway - they can't vote. A black in South Africa is not giving up anything,'' he insists.

Do Ciskeians agree? It's hard to say. A survey conducted by a commission appointed by the Ciskei government found the vast majority of Ciskeians did not favor independence.

Although the commission did not recommend independence, the Ciskei government held a referendum of its own in December 1980. Some 98 percent of the votes cast supported independence.

Government critics who watched the referendum process are convinced the vote was not ''fair'' because tribal chiefs and headmen passed the word that a ''yes'' vote was required. ''People feared they would lose rights to land if they voted 'no,' '' claims one local observer.

Critics also charge the ''yes'' vote was based on expectations of a form of independence with better terms than those gained by other homelands. The better terms never materialized. Ciskei chief minister L. L. Sebe had sought a common nationality arrangement whereby Ciskeians would not lose South African citizenship, but this was not granted with independence.

Wanted or not, independence will have numerous practical consequences. Losing South African citizenship may have its broadest impact in removing legitimacy, from the South African point of view, of further demands from Ciskeians that they be granted a voice in affairs of the republic. Their children will need permits to remain in urban areas as Ciskei citizens.

It also poses problems for individual Ciskeians. Traveling to other countries on a Ciskei passport may not be possible. Ciskeians may have to request a special visa from the country they plan to visit. If a visa is not granted, the Ciskeian must get the consent of his own homeland to ask South Africa for a passport. If granted, the South African passport is stamped ''citizenship undetermined.''

Independence also produces an economic impact. With independence Ciskeians are no longer covered by South African pension laws. Those living and working inside the Ciskei lost unemployent insurance. They also lost workers' compensation insurance. It is not yet clear what the Ciskei government will provide as a replacement.

For those living outside the Ciskei, life also changed with independence. Those able to live in urban areas of ''white'' South Africa under so-called ''Section 10 rights'' will be the last in their families to be entitled to this status.

This raises the possibility that a Ciskeian born after independence may inherit property and land rights in a city under the new 99-year leasehold system, but be denied the right to live in the house.

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