S. Africa blocks squatters with tear gas, barbed wire

The surprising thing about the latest confrontation between the South African government and black squatters near Cape Town is the government's regretful tone , even as it wields an iron fist.

In attempting to stamp out the latest black squatter community on the outskirts of Cape Town, the police have used tear gas and barbed wire. The so-called KTC squatter camp has been the scene of numerous confrontations between police and its black inhabitants since earlier this year. Large contingents of police, their dogs, and even armored cars have been used to stop illegal shelters from taking shape.

But even as the latest episode showed firm government resolve to squash the settlement, a government official sounded distressed about having to deprive men , women, and children of shelter as winter arrives in South Africa.

''It's not easy to do what we're doing. I'm perfectly honest about that. It is not a nice thing,'' Franko Maritz, chairman of the Western Cape Administration Board, was quoted as saying.

''But they are breaking the law, and the law must be upheld,'' explained Mr. Maritz.

The government's actions have left hundreds of blacks without shelter during South Africa's first cold snap. At a meeting organized by the Women's Movement for Peace and the Black Sash human-rights organization to protest the government's actions, a spokesman for the squatters said the police had confiscated food and clothing during their raid.

Squatter communities near Cape Town spring up so regularly that they almost go unnoticed. The Cape Province is a frequent site of the squatter camps because many blacks from nearby ''homelands'' migrate to the area ''illegally,'' unable to find work in their alloted homeland. Also, since the government has designated the Cape a labor preference area for Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent), black influx is not tolerated.

The KTC camp is a little unusual in that most of its residents do have legal permits to be in the Cape Town area. Their ''crime'' is that since there is a shortage of government-sanctioned housing, they have thrown up their own makeshift shelters.

Lack of housing for blacks has reached critical proportions in South Africa. Government critics see in it a deliberate attempt to keep blacks out of the urban areas. In the Cape Town area, the government is building no new housing for blacks. But officials say there is a waiting list of at least 3,000 blacks who qualify for housing.

A Black Sash worker in Cape Town familiar with the KTC group of squatters say 75 percent of them have a permit to be in Cape Town. Many of them were formerly living in ''legal'' housing that has become severely overcrowded.

Since February, the KTC squatters have played a cat-and-mouse game with the police. Shelters comprised of plastic draped between tree branches are quickly thrown up for the night, and quickly torn down the next day by the police.

Dr. Piet Koornhof, the government minister of cooperation and development, has announced that 200 of the squatters will be allowed to erect temporary housing.

However, that certainly will not solve the housing crisis for the thousands of blacks now searching for accommodation in the Cape Town area.

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