Why South Africa's rural blacks migrate to dry, dusty settlement

As a rural black in South Africa, Georgina Seekoei lived a vagabond existence , moving from one white-owned farm to the next - eight in all - in search of some security.

She never found it. Finally she settled in a tin shack in this sprawling rural slum known as Botshabelo - the fast-est-growing and perhaps largest black ''resettlement'' area in South Africa.

''At least I have a place to live. Things here are not completely right but they will get better,'' she says hopefully.

Such hopes, a lack of alternatives, and a variety of government pressures are driving blacks in huge numbers from all across the midsection of South Africa to this desolate location 30 miles from the nearest city.

Botshabelo (formerly called Onver-wacht) is a natural outcome of the South African government's racial separation policies, particularly its drive to create separate living space for blacks. Some 1,000 blacks a month pour into Botsha-belo, which means ''place of refuge.''

Physically, Botshabelo is an unforgiving place - arid, windblown, and devoid of natural vegetation. On a clear day the glint of its tin rooftops can be seen for miles, although the bulk of the settlement is conveniently hidden from the main highway that knifes through South Africa's middle.

The tin shacks, mud huts, and newer brick dwellings - usually shrouded in a haze of dust and smoke - march across the gently rolling landscape before giving way to the vast open spaces that surround Botshabelo.

Blacks who come here may pay a high price. Many observers fear they - and those in other black resettlement areas - will ultimately lose the few rights they have in ''white'' South Africa and be entrapped in a community many think can only become poorer.

In the past 20 years, South Africa's white-minority government has resettled or moved at least 2 million people - most of them blacks - with the aim not only of segregating the country's population groups but also of moving as many blacks as possible into the 10 so-called ''homelands.'' Many have been moved by force.

Others - perhaps a majority - are not literally forced to move. They simply find they have no alternative but to settle in places like Botshabelo, say church officials, human rights groups, and others who have worked in this community.

Botshabelo is the story of such pressures on blacks. It is also the story of the enormous difficulties communities like Botshabelo face. These range from individual struggles for survival to communal efforts to find a sense of identity.

The white government faces the major problem of making these settlements economically sustainable when their reason for existing is largely ideological.

Botshabelo offers some relief to blacks in South Africa's central province who have been pressured to leave the white farms and towns where they have lived for generations. In Botshabelo blacks can own land, send their children to nearby schools, and gain a sense of permanence not attainable in ''white'' South Africa.

But if all goes according to plan, blacks here will one day lose their South African citizenship and thus, in Pretoria's eyes, any claim to political rights in the land of their birth.

Meanwhile, some analysts see Botsha-belo becoming a backwater of poverty and unemployment. Blacks here have no legal right to go out on their own to look for jobs. They must wait to be recruited. And despite government assurances, some analysts doubt there will ever be enough jobs in this rural hinterland to sustain a community the size of Botshabelo.

The settlement's population is already 200,000. Hennie Kriel, chief commissioner for black affairs in the Orange Free State, predicts it will reach 1 million.

He makes clear that South Africa intends one day to statutorily divest itself of Botshabelo by declaring it part of the Qwaqwa ''homeland'' situated some 140 miles to the northeast.

That would shift responsibility for the well-being of the people of Botshabelo to Qwaqwa, one of South Africa's poorest homelands.

The homelands make up only 13 percent of South Africa's land, but the government in Pretoria views them as the living space for the nation's black majority. Already, four homelands have accepted ''independence,'' a status that stripped more than 8 million blacks of their South African citizenship.

Botshabelo is being encouraged to grow for two reasons, say church officials serving in the community: (1) to move as many blacks as is economically feasible away from the white areas of the Orange Free State and (2) to help induce Qwaqwa to accept ''independence,'' since Botshabelo, if developed, could provide Qwaqwa with a sizable new tax base.

Botshabelo was established in 1979 on a bleak expanse of land once used for livestock. Blacks are not forced to move here. But academic analysts and others who have studied Botshabelo are loath to say people come here voluntarily. They see a complex set of pressures , most of them resulting from government policies , leaving blacks with few other options.

''After shifting around for so many years and living in insecurity, these people are now happy to have a place they consider their own,'' says Ralph Mothe , a Roman Catholic priest who has worked in Botshabelo since it was established.

''You might say we had no other option,'' says Sam Chaka, owner of Botshabelo's only gasoline station.

Many analysts say the homelands policy itself and its emphasis on entrenching ethnic divisions among blacks created the need for a place like Botshabelo.

In 1977 the Bophuthatswana homeland was designated independent. Bophutha-tswana consists of a number of uncon-nected pieces of territory for South Africa's Tswana-speaking blacks. One irregular-shaped piece called Thaba Nchu lies far south of the rest of Bophu-thatswana, near Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. For generations it contained a mix of Tswanas and the Sotho linked to Qwaqwa. By all accounts they lived harmoniously.

Trouble started with Bophutha-tswana's independence, according to people on the scene at the time. Bophutha-tswana demanded the Sotho take Bophuthatswana ''citizenship'' and harassed those who refused. Meanwhile, Sotho kept streaming into Thaba Nchu.

Outbreaks of violence eventually forced the South African government to intervene. Pretoria decided to resettle the 40,000 or so Sotho of Thaba Nchu on farmland now known as Botshabelo.

Pretoria's vision for Botshabelo changed. A prominent, informed white in Thaba Nchu says Pretoria swiftly made plans to use the new settlement for blacks being forced from farms and towns all over the Orange Free State. There are a number of non-Sotho in Botshabelo.

Many forces pressure blacks to move to Botshabelo. Since the early 1900s, large numbers of blacks have been forced off of white-owned farms, where traditionally they were allocated small patches of land for raising crops and tending livestock.

The 1913 Natives Land Act stripped blacks of the right to purchase new land outside areas designated for the homelands. In the Orange Free State, it had the effect of banning the practice of sharecropping on white farms.

In 1979 the government banned ''labor tenancy,'' a system whereby blacks were allowed to live on white farms if they provided six months of labor.

These laws, along with mechanization on the farms of the Orange Free State, have forced large numbers of blacks off the farms and generated a feeling of deep insecurity among the province's rural blacks. Black migration to cities and towns has been severely restricted, and blacks already in urban areas are being channeled to Botshabelo.

Next: South Africa "improves" Botshabelo to attract urban blacks.

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