S. Africa cracks down on squatters

''Now you must go back to the homelands, as your employers no longer want you here.''

That reported comment, made by a South African magistrate to a black man recently brought to court for violating this country's tough influx control laws , reflects the harsh treatment accompanying a new government ''blitz'' against squatters in the Cape Town region.

The raids are only the latest episode in the perennial battle between the government's policy of apartheid, which aims in part at keeping the number of blacks in ''white'' areas to a minimum, and blacks' desperate search for jobs and housing in those areas.

The confrontation shows signs of intensifying as South Africa's economy contracts and the Nationalist government vows to tighten its system for keeping unwanted blacks out of designated ''white'' urban areas.

Over the past month some 2,000 blacks have been arrested for living and working in the Cape Town area without proper government-issued permits. Officials of the Western Cape Administration Board (WCAB) backed by armed police have been searching migrant worker hostels at dawn for violators as well as stepping up arrests of black women working illegally in white homes.

The main distinction to the current wave of arrests is that they are on a ''much larger scale than usual,'' according to Mrs. Noel Robb of the Black Sash office in Cape Town. The Black Sash is a leading human-rights group that monitors influx control and helps provide legal counsel for those arrested.

A WCAB spokesman says the upturn in arrests is not a sign of a new crackdown but rather a ''resumption of activities'' after a lull.

Except for the size of the raids, South Africa has seen all this before. The most frequent ''battleground'' is the Cape Town region, where black squatting is particularly persistent. Blacks from the nearby Ciskei and Transkei ''homelands'' migrate to the Western Cape in search of jobs only to find that the kinds of jobs they are qualified for have been set aside for the local Colored (mixed race descent) population by the government's labor ''preference policy.''

The government estimates there are some 84,000 blacks living in the Cape Town area without proper permits. It considers these people job poachers who take work from the indigenous Colored population.

Critics of the Colored labor preference policy and influx control in general say they are simply extensions of apartheid, aimed at keeping blacks out of the economic or political mainstream of South Africa.

Blacks arrested in these raids usually find that ''justice'' is swift. The Black Sash says blacks are being arrested and brought before a magistrate so fast at present that they have no opportunity to seek legal assistance. The trials last about a minute and the fine is typically $60 to $80 (US).

But analysts see little evidence that the arrests have any lasting effect except to make those fined a little poorer, and the administration board richer. The violator is usually released, once the fine is paid. And it has been demonstrated statistically that many blacks who work in the Cape region without permits and pay fines are better off financially than they would be if they remained in the economically depressed ''homelands.''

The government appears to recognize that its ''homelands'' policy is failing economically. A long-term decentralization program has been started to encourage investment in regional growth centers that would provide employment closer to the ''homelands.''

More immediately the National Party has vowed to tighten its influx control laws. The minister of cooperation and development, Dr. Piet Koornhof, has formulated new legislation that would tighten the system partly by shifting heavier penalties onto those who house or hire ''illegals.''

But the fate of this legislation is uncertain. It aroused such vociferous opposition that the government is holding it back for further consideration. Some think it will not emerge in parliament before 1984.

Meanwhile, Dr. Koornhof remains committed to strengthening control in the near future. At this year's Cape provincial congress of the National Party he promised to override with new legislation two landmark court decisions that opened two cracks for blacks wanting to come to the cities. The court rulings allowed wives and children to join husbands with permanent urban rights, and expanded the number of black contract workers who could qualify for permanent city status.

Government action is also awaited on the 5,000 or so squatters living in the Nyanga and Crossroads areas of Cape Town. They were given temporary reprieves by the government, but those permits expired late in September. Those blacks remain in a state of limbo, wondering whether they might be arrested, fined, or ''deported'' back to the ''homelands'' - or allowed to remain.

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