Luring S. African blacks from cities; Government improves housing, roads, schools in rural settlements

''It was an absolutely miserable place,'' she says, lowering her voice to a whisper. ''A lot of old people died. There were just green tents that didn't even reach the ground, and tin toilets. And it was miserably cold,'' she adds with a shudder.

The black woman is describing conditions that made Botshabelo one of South Africa's worst ''resettlement'' camps when it was established in 1979.

Blacks were not literally forced to move to Botshabelo, or Onverwacht, as it was then known. But they were caught in the cross-fire of South Africa's ''homelands'' policy. They had no alternative when the government offered to move them. The conditions awaiting them were horrible, early residents say.

Five years later there have been some improvements at Botshabelo. These changes make one thing clear: South Africa's white-minority government is redoubling its efforts to bring its segregationist policies to their logical conclusion.

That means making the process of resettlement, the aim of which is to remove as many blacks as feasible from ''white'' South Africa, as effective and as permanent as possible.

The South African government has ''resettled'' or moved at least 2 million people - mostly blacks - over the past 20 years in its effort to separate the races. Sometimes it has used force. But the preferred method is a combination of pressures and enticements that seems to have been particularly fine-tuned at Botshabelo.

Once resettlement areas are established, the government has an interest in making them as economically sustainable as possible. (Some economists say this objective is impossible to attain because of the isolation and lack of resources of most of these communities.)

The government in Pretoria has launched a major effort to expand and upgrade Botshabelo. Present plans call for it to expand some fivefold, to a population of 1 million.

''Botshabelo is the highest priority (among resettlement communities) in the country,'' says Hennie Kriel, chief commissioner for black affairs in the Orange Free State, where Botshabelo is located.

Ultimately, Mr. Kriel says, the central government plans to divest itself of Botshabelo by transferring it to the Qwaqwa homeland. If Qwaqwa becomes ''independent,'' all of Botshabelo's residents will lose their South African citizenship.

The government also appears to be trying to attract a new element to Botshabelo - urban blacks.

Andries Kruger, the commissioner of Botshabelo, says a new housing section under construction will offer electricity, plumbing, and paved roads - amenities not found elsewhere in Botshabelo. This housing is designed for blacks from Bloemfontein, the provincial capital some 30 miles to the northwest.

Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash human rights organization, says the government appears to be upgrading other rural areas, too.

Such moves help the white government limit South Africa's urban black population. Urban blacks pose a sticky political problem for the country. They have been recognized as ''permanent'' residents of ''white'' South Africa, but the government does not have a plan to give them any political role or political rights. Pressure is building to accommodate these blacks politically.

By virtue of their importance to South Africa's economy, urban blacks have some rights not shared by rural blacks. For instance, urban blacks with so-called Section 10 rights can look for jobs on their own; rural blacks must wait to be recruited. Despite their economic importance, Pretoria would prefer to keep the urban black population as small as possible, Mrs. Duncan says.

In Botshabelo, better amenities are designed in part to attract blacks from Bloemfontein.

There is also pressure from Bloemfontein, since at present its black townships are not allowed to expand.

Urban blacks who move to Botshabelo will pay a heavy price: They will lose their Section 10 rights. Kriel says the rights of these blacks will be protected ''administratively,'' but such protection will not be backed by law and could be withdrawn at any time. Children born in Botshabelo will not have Section 10 rights when they grow up.

Certain of the improvements planned for Botshabelo will benefit everyone in the community. There are permanent schools, a health center, and a sports complex.

There is an effort to encourage more employers of unskilled workers to bring their companies to Botshabelo. A small industrial site has been established and Mr. Kruger says Botshabelo now provides jobs for 5,000 of its residents.

By and large, Botshabelo remains a rural slum, and many of its residents live in squalid conditions.

Elizabeth Setouto's lifestyle is typical. Mrs. Setouto is a young woman with modern tastes, the only apparent concession to her rural African roots being the colorful bands of beads wrapped around her wrists and ankles.

Mrs. Setouto and her four children live in a one-room tin shanty that has no electricity or plumbing. Their dwelling sits on a patch of land measuring 90 feet by 45 feet. There is no vegetation and the only other feature of the property is a tin toilet. She goes to a tap at the end of a rutted dirt road to get water for cooking and bathing.

But Mrs. Setouto has tried gallantly to put some color in her world. The inside of her home is papered with the pages of magazines. Rock star Joan Jett and singer Julio Iglesias smile down from the walls. A small patch of worn yellow linoleum lies on the hard mud floor.

Mrs. Setouto's husband, like most of the men of Botshabelo who have jobs, works far from home. Employed in a gold mine 75 miles away, he visits his family once a month.

Mrs. Setouto goes into Bloemfontein each day to clean for a white family. She works seven days a week with one weekend off a month and is paid about $40 per month. For Emily Sebotsa, life is even more difficult. Her one-room tin shanty rattles violently under the winter winds now blowing with force. She and her bedridden husband huddle all day around a small coal stove. She ventures outside only to get water. They live on a pension of about $50 a month.

Mrs. Sebotsa says she came to Botshabelo only because the village where she was born was turned over to the Bophutha-tswana homeland.

''If Bophutha-tswana was not there, I would go back,'' she says.

A private doctor says health conditions in Botshabelo are not good. ''Most of the children are malnourished,'' this doctor says, and although there is ''not much starvation,'' many people ''are going to sleep without food.''

The government operates three free health clinics here and is building a larger health center. But some residents complain they are treated harshly at the government-run clinics. And they complain that Botshabelo does not have a hospital.

There are signs of hunger in Botsha-belo, too. Operation Hunger, a relief feeding program, has begun dispensing food here. Corn meal is distributed monthly to about 8,500 families, and church officials say many more requests are coming in.

The Rev. Ralph Mothe insists there is a high child-mortality rate in Botshabelo, but no statistics are available to confirm this. Fr. Mothe visits the community graveyard each month. This February he counted 100 new children's graves - three times the number of new plots for adults. He sees this as proof that life in Botshabelo is harsh and that it is taking a toll on the young.

Botshabelo is strictly a residential settlement, and for the poorest of the poor that makes survival more difficult. A young woman who used to live on a white farm explains:

''On the farm you could always find a way to get food, but it is more difficult here.''

But farming is not allowed here. Residents do not have Section 10 rights. They must line up at the white-run labor bureau office and wait to be recruited for jobs.

Botshabelo commissioner Andries Kruger says joblessness is ''minimal'' but he says there are no figures available.

The job board in the labor bureau office lists openings for a nightwatchman, a brickmaker, a plumber's helper - jobs likely to take residents outside of Botsha-belo. If qualified, a black is allowed to enter into a contract with the employer. If he loses his job, the black worker must return to his rural community.

Because of these stringent labor controls, many blacks become literally trapped in rural settlements like Botshabelo.

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