In the wake of some of the worst black unrest ever experienced in the Cape Town region, the South African government has made an important concession that turns one of its most cherished beliefs upside down. The government has granted property rights to blacks in the established townships near Cape Town -- a region in which South Africa's segregationist dream of keeping the cities mainly white has been pursued with the most vigor and with the harshest consequences for blacks over the past 20 years.
But the nub issue that sparked violence and left 18 dead last week remains unresolved. A week ago, blacks at the Crossroads squatter camp took to the streets when it appeared they were going to be moved, against their wishes, to the new government-built housing scheme at Khayelitsha. The government has promised to negotiate with the people of Crossroads before moving them. But it has not denied that they will be moved.
Granting property rights to blacks in the established townships of Cape Town -- Guguletu, Langa, and Nyanga -- was not a complete surprise. The government clearly had been moving in that direction for some time.
But the timing of the announcement by Gerrit Viljoen, the minister of cooperation, development, and education, seemed aimed at stopping the Crossroads upheaval from spreading to other black communities, where early signs of unrest were already evident.
The blacks of Guguletu, Langa, and Nyanga had been living with enormous insecurity. The government's stated policy had been that blacks in these townships would also eventually be moved to Khayelitsha. The concern that Crossroads was about to be moved sent pangs of anxiety through the established black townships as well.
Over the past seven years the government has slowly been coming to grips with the notion that 10.1 million blacks living outside the tribal ``homelands'' are a permanent feature of South Africa. The ideology of the white National Party once maintained that all blacks would eventually live in the ``homelands.''
The government introduced the 99-year lease for certain urban blacks in 1978, an acknowledgement that blacks in the cities were there to stay. At the opening of parliament this year, President P. W. Botha indicated that the government intended to take the additional -- but largely symbolic -- step of giving those blacks that qualify for 99-year leases freehold title to the land they lease. (In practice, however, a 99-year lease is nearly equivalent to freehold title.) Mr. Botha also said that blacks outside the ``homelands'' required new forms of political representation at ``higher levels.''
The laggard in the government's dawning recognition of the permanence of the urban blacks has been the Cape Town area, ironically the home of the country's parliament where the government has slowly unveiled its altered thinking.
In 1962 the government decided to try formallyto exclude as many blacks as possible from the western half of the Cape province. The area was labeled a ``colored preference area,'' meaning coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) had to be hired for jobs ahead of blacks. To further the aim of keeping blacks out of Cape Town, the government for 20 years refused to provide anywhere near enough new housing for blacks.
But blacks have continued to flow into the Cape Town area, resulting in an enormous and mushrooming squatter population, including the 65,000 blacks living at Crossroads.
Now the government is living up to its stated intentions. By granting blacks in Guguletu, Langa, and Nyanga the right to have 99-year leases on land, which presumably will soon become freehold title, the government has dropped the extra stringent restrictions it had previously applied to Cape Town. The ruling National Party promised last year to drop the colored preference area policy on jobs.
But many questions remain about the government's emerging policy toward urban blacks. What form of political representation they will gain is unclear.
Also unclear is the substance of new legislation the government has promised this year regulating the movement of blacks in the urban areas.
While the government is giving blacks the right to own property in the urban areas, existing policies are having the effect of actually shrinking the number of blacks that can qualify for property rights.
The expected new legislation affecting the movement of urban blacks could either help more blacks gain property rights or confine such rights to a relatively small and elite group, political analysts stress.