South Africa has just had a chance to see how its brand new political system looks in a bathing suit. While the government held its breath, the country's oldest city, Cape Town, suddenly announced that its main beaches and swimming pools would be open to all races during the current summer seaon.
Previously, most of these have been strictly segregated according to race -- with the whites using the best facilities. And this is how the law says things should still be regulated.
But Cape Town councillors argued that if the ruling white Cape National Party was prepared to share a new three-chamber central Parliament with Asians and ``Colored'' people -- people of mixed race -- then there was no justification for trying to keep different races apart in the sea.
Furthermore, beach ``apartheid'' -- the name for the government's policy of enforced racial segregation -- has been crumbling on the Cape beaches for some time.
Notice boards proclaiming certain beach facilities ``reserved for the exclusive use of whites'' and signed ``BY ORDER'' have been defaced regularly or simply removed altogether, leaving just bare poles sticking out of the sand. And blacks have then cheerfully moved in.
Nonetheless, Cape Town's open defiance brought a brisk government reaction. The district police chief -- a government functionary -- warned that ``action would be taken'' if there were any contraventions of the law, and a Cabinet minister declared that it was ``very important'' for all races to ``abide by existing laws.''
The Cape's biggest newspaper immediately told him not to behave ``like King Canute'' and the police also must have had second thoughts because when blacks flocked to previously segregated beaches and swimming pools in their thousands at Christmas and New Year, no one was arrested.
Council officials on duty at municipal pools, however, while welcoming blacks, were nonetheless obliged to warn them that they could still be charged if whites objected to their presence and complained to the police. However, if any whites did lay charges, the police ignored them.
Most whites seemed to accept the integration as inevitable. After all, they have become increasingly used to racial mixing at work, in shops, and most other public places. One Afrikaner vacationer remarked, looking around him at hundreds of blacks at Cape Town's smart seaside, previously strictly whites-only sea point pavilion: ``You get used to it after a while. But I bet they would not believe overseas that this is actually happening here.''
Other whites made it clear that they did not like the integration one bit. They complained they were being ``crowded off'' the beaches and objected that some blacks swam in their underwear. But council officials -- many themselves black -- sent to patrol the pools and beaches reported that the crowds were well-behaved and that there was generally ``no trouble.''
Not all local authorities will follow Cape Town's example and abandon beach apartheid. Though there have been some tentative moves toward this at some of the bigger resort cities, like Durban.
Conservative towns near the sea are likely to try to keep their beaches as ``white'' as possible as long as they can.