Apartheid derailed in S. Africa dining cars

Black and white South Africans are taking a bite out of apartheid in a surprising place - the elegant dining saloons and lounge coaches attached to the mainline trains.

This has just been shyly acknowledged by the South African Transport Services , the government department that controls all the country's rail and almost all its air traffic.

It seems to be part of an attempt by the transport department to water down apartheid (South Africa's race segregation policy) quietly, hoping that no one will notice and that it will not offend too many right-wing whites.

South Africa's intercity trains are among the best in the world, but with two exceptions they have been strictly segregated according to race for decades.

White and black first- and second-class passengers pay the same fares and sit in identical coaches - at opposite ends of the train.

But while whites have been able to sit in comfort in lounge cars and to eat off crockery in the dining saloons, blacks have been barred from these facilities and obliged to take their own food for the trip and to eat it in their own compartments.

The reason for opening the lounge cars and dining saloons now to all first- and second-class passengers is ''purely financial,'' according to a transport department spokesman. He said it is aimed at making the best use of available facilities.

This is an argument that is calculated to have wide appeal in the country's current recession. But there have been complaints already from some whites, and the minister of transport has warned that the ''concession'' to blacks will be withdrawn if there are any ''problems'' or if fewer whites travel by train as a consequence. (Blacks who travel in the austere, blacks-only third class are still barred.)

But strict racial segregation is breaking down in many spheres, and whites are just having to get used to it.

Air travelers of different race sit side by side in jets operated by the national airline without any fuss, even though just a few years ago an attempt was made to put black passengers at the back of the planes.

Two famous luxury mainline trains, the Blue Train and the Drakensberg Express , have been integrated since 1972.

Even on suburban commuter trains, where racial segregation is still strictly enforced, there are cracks in the policy.

For example, almost all private previously exclusively white schools now accept black pupils, in defiance of government wishes. (Races are still separated in public schools.)

When these black pupils travel on the train in school uniform, they often sit with their white friends in the coaches reserved for whites. But when they wear ordinary clothes, the ticket examiners show them off to the coaches reserved for blacks.

And some young black secretaries and black businessmen - particularly people of mixed race - sometimes deliberately buck the system and sit in the ''white coaches.''

Sometimes there is a fuss. People have even been arrested, and there have been some embarrassing incidents.

For example, South African sports officials preened themselves last summer when they managed to persuade a team of West Indian cricketers to tour this country, in spite of an international sports boycott against South Africa. Some South Africans even boasted that the tour by the black team was proof that ''apartheid is dead.''

So there were many red faces when one of the cricket players, Colin Croft, was kicked out of a white commuter coach and told to sit with the blacks when he took a train in Cape Town.

There are also more widespread, everyday disparities.

For example, young naval servicemen of all races live together in barracks in Cape Town. But when they travel in trains off duty, even if they are in uniform, black servicemen have to separate from their white colleagues and travel at opposite ends of trains.

Transport authorities are aware the segregation policy is controversial, and last month they conducted a racial experiment on trains in the Johannesburg area , the country's biggest metropolitan area.

Without telling the public, they suspended segregation rules and told railways staff in a special directive to treat ''considerately'' any blacks found traveling in coaches reserved for whites. They were told to avoid confrontation ''at all costs.'' If white passengers complained about blacks being in the same compartment, the staff were instructed to try to ease the situation ''diplomatically.''

After a few days, a railways spokesman said he was pleased to report that there had been no serious race ''incidents'' during the ''experiment,'' but that this did not mean the railways would immediately integrate its train services.

''We cannot change current policy as put down in law all by ourselves,'' he said, adding that segregation was once again being strictly enforced and that the situation had consequently ''returned to normal.''

''Normal'' for South Africa, that is.

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