South Africa's blacks: one step back for each step ahead?

Reform in South Africa is coming in dribs and drabs with each progressive change often offset by a retrogressive step. This is the assessment of the Urban Foundation, a relatively conservative organization set up in 1977 by progressive business interests to promote ''peaceful structural change'' in this country.

While calling the pattern of change in South Africa ''disturbing,'' the Urban Foundation also issued a thinly veiled warning to the government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha:

''The reform process should impact favorably on the life of the average black South African in the near future if the concept is to remain credible,'' the foundation says in its annual review.

Botha's five-year premiership has been marked by at least the rhetoric of reform, urging his fellow white Afrikaners to ''adapt or die.'' But the plea for more action and a greater sense of urgency by the Urban Foundation is one of a number of signs that even among moderately progressive whites in South Africa, the pace of reform is regarded as dangerously slow.

Blacks, for the most part, see no meaningful change.

The Urban Foundation was born in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto riots. It represented acknowledgement in the business community, dominated mainly by English-speaking South Africans, that government policy was anathema to the long-term interests of the private sector.

Although the Urban Foundation has had some measure of success in its projects as well as efforts to influence government policy, it remains suspect by many blacks. They regard it as an attempt to co-opt blacks by giving them economic gains while the government continues to deny them fundamental political rights.

Aware of this criticism and that capitalism is increasingly viewed as an oppressive force by blacks, the Urban Foundation has shifted its emphasis toward structural reform. In the foundation's view, South Africa's social balance sheet looks like this:

* Housing: Fundamental change for the better. The Nationalist government's ideology that urban blacks were merely a temporary labor force for white industry has given way to reality. Government has recognized the permanence of the urban black and has given him more security of tenure, albeit in a form inferior to that enjoyed by whites.

The government has allowed greater private-sector involvement in black housing and has put up for sale some 500,000 black housing units.

On the negative side, the state has allowed a huge black housing shortage to develop over the years. In practice, many blacks simply cannot find adequate shelter.

* Education: Perhaps the most worrisome area. Education issues sparked riots in 1976, and while the government responded with many ''quantitative changes,'' like building many new black schools, these measures ''were carried out through the existing systems and were thus easily portrayed and perceived as 'more' of what was inherently 'inferior,' '' the Urban Foundation says.

Real reform continues to languish, and the state continues with a segregated educational system that blacks regard as inferior at the outset.

* Economic opportunity: Good and bad. Blacks are still discriminated against in the job field. And the current deep recession and drought are hitting blacks the hardest.

The granting of full rights to black trade unions in 1979 and subsequent reforms in this field ''must be regarded as a hopeful feature of the South African environment,'' says the Urban Foundation. But it worries in the same breath about the ''continued detention of trade union leaders.''

* Urbanization: Mostly negative. For economic reasons, blacks feel tremendous , and growing, pressure to move to the cities. But the government continues to rely on coercive measures to allow in only as many blacks as it needs for white industry. This creates a climate conducive to ''agitation and insurrection,'' the report says.

* Political rights: One faint glimmer of hope in an overall dark picture. Although denied any central government rights, blacks may be granted some meaningful role in their own local governments. There has been some progressive legislation to this effect, and a Cabinet committee has been established to look at the position of urban blacks.

But real reform here remains a matter of speculation. And whether credible black leaders will want any part of a local government system designed by the white Nationalist Party remains to be seen.

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