South African blacks get a settlement, not community

Phillip Knutsen, a Lutheran minister, wanders through the poorest section of Botshabelo with a shovel in one hand and a packet of vegetable seeds in the other.

He is doing some benign bribery. If Botshabelo's poorest residents will plant a garden - and Mr. Knutsen will help turn the soil - he will provide them with free rations of cornmeal.

Hunger looms as a major problem as Botshabelo enters the rainless Southern Hemisphere winter after a drought-stricken summer.

Pulling a threadbare jacket tight around him, an unemployed man here says he would be better prepared to withstand the cold if he could afford to eat meat.

Botshabelo is probably South Africa's largest ''resettlement'' area for blacks. Five years old, it struggles to find a sense of community cohesiveness and identity against its residents' prevailing feelings of disorientation and isolation, say those who live and work here.

Mr. Knutsen's effort is one of very few community projects in Botshabelo. And it is making slow progress.

The problem is that although most of the people of Botsha-belo lived on white-owned farms or in rural locations before coming here, they do not water their gardens. They wait for the rain to provide moisture, as they did when they lived on farms.

''Resettlement has more effect on people's lives than you realize,'' Knutsen says. ''People here are just trying to survive.''

''People have come here from different locations and regrouping has become a major problem. There are no real community leaders, and right now the only bond that unites people is the churches,'' says Thabi Shange, who is doing field work in Botshabelo as part of a larger project.

South Africa's white government is pumping money into Botshabelo to upgrade and expand it.

''We're trying to make this the ultimate city,'' says Andries Kruger, the white official who manages Botshabelo.

But today Botshabelo is basically an enormous settlement of people in a desolate location far from most job opportunities. Mr. Kruger says he hopes to lay down infrastructure and a local nucleus of jobs that would make Botshabelo more than just a labor dormitory.

South Africa has launched a major decentralization program, offering tax incentives to companies that locate here and in other resettlement areas away from the ''white'' urban centers.

But most of Botshabelo's workers are employed far from home for long periods or daily board one of the hundreds of buses that pick up workers at the crack of dawn, take them to Bloemfontein or other cities, and bring them back to Botshabelo after dark. The companies that come here create mostly poor-paying, unskilled jobs.

Residents of Botshabelo recognize improvements are being made in their community. But people who work here are skeptical about the motives behind the improvements and what the changes will ultimately achieve.

''They want Qwaqwa to jump at Botshabelo,'' says Ralph Mothe, a black Roman Catholic priest who has worked in Botshabelo since its establishment. The government plans one day to transfer Botshabelo to the Qwaqwa ''homeland.'' Fr. Mothe figures government expenditures to improve Botshabelo are aimed at speeding the transfer.

He adds: ''It's easy to build schools. The difficult thing is to rebuild the community.''

Knutsen and other church officials are making a start. They have begun working together to dispense free food to the hungry. It is provided by the Operation Hunger relief program.

The Methodist church has also started a small program to teach residents to raise their own chickens and sell the eggs.

Church officials see these projects providing not only immediate help to the people of Botshabelo, but also a way to begin to build a community cohesiveness.

Politically, the people of Botshabelo appear quiescent. Largely uneducated and from rural backgrounds, the residents here ''by and large don't think in terms of (resisting) apartheid or the 'homeland' policy,'' says Mothe.

Yet he is worried about the future. ''I see (Botshabelo) as a time bomb. . . . It is a lot of people that will eventually see . . . that they are confined and are losing their rights in South Africa,'' he forecasts.

''The kids at school already have a different, more militant attitude,'' he says. Indeed, in 1980 some shops in Botshabelo were set afire by students, apparently in sympathy with unrest in Bloemfontein.

Mothe points out that one of the first new buildings going up in Botshabelo is a larger police station. But residents show only the slightest flicker of concern about the political implications of Botshabelo.

A woman says she is happy in Botsha-belo but worries about the prospect of it becoming part of the Qwaqwa homeland. ''Things seem to get out of order there'' in the homeland, she says.

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