The South African government is beginning to add meat to the vague promises of changes for blacks made by President P. W. Botha at the opening of parliament in January. One of the first steps, the government announced Monday, will be to ease certain features of the so-called ``pass'' laws, which regulate where blacks in South Africa may live, work, and travel.
The move came as a disappointment to those who want the pass laws eliminated or at least fundamentally changed. Many took the announcement as a signal that any major legislation that would scrap the pass laws and introduce a new non-discriminatory strategy for black urbanization is now unlikely during the current session of parliament.
There has been mounting pressure from liberal Afrikaners, businessmen, and other reform-minded whites in South Africa for fundamental changes away from the pass law system.
Many of these advocates of change feel that only bold, fundamental policy shifts by the government will defuse the renewed outbreaks of black unrest in South Africa and slow the momentum of this year's movement in the United States toward punitive economic legislation against South Africa.
A spokesman for Dr. Gerrit Viljoen, the minister of cooperation, development, and education who announced the new measures, says that the easing of the pass laws was not meant as a replacement for the envisioned ``new scheme of urbanization and influx control.'' But the spokesman also says that the promised urbanization legislation -- which may help some blacks gain more property rights in urban areas -- would take ``quite a while'' to formulate, and that it was uncertain whether this formulation would be made before parliament closes this year.
Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash human rights organization, says she is deeply disappointed that the government is moving so timidly on the issue of influx control.
``I had begun to hope that the rising pressure [to do away with the pass laws] would bring a more positive response'' from the government, says Ms. Duncan.
Charles Nupen, a lawyer at the Legal Resources Center, which specializes in cases dealing with the pass laws, says the changes announced by the government only a mounted to a ``slight amelioration of the existing structures,'' rather than any basic move away from the system of influx control.
Still, the changes ``will help a lot of people,'' says Duncan.
Dr. Viljoen's statement indicated that more blacks will be allowed to qualify for permanent residential rights in the urban areas, and that those who already have such rights will retain them if they move from one urban township to another, or if their township is incorporated into one of the tribal ``homelands.''
Permanent residential status -- or Section 10 rights, as they are called here -- gives blacks in the urban areas of South Africa the kind of basic rights whites take for granted. With Section 10 rights, a black can own his own home, have his family live with him, and can change jobs without fear of being sent back to one of the homelands.
To qualify for Section 10 rights prior to now, blacks have had to meet one of three criteria.
To be born in an urban area and to have lived there since birth.
To have worked for one employer in one area for 10 years.
To have lived in one particular urban area continuously for 15 years.
Blacks who can meet one of these qualifications can then have their families live with them in South Africa's urban areas. Blacks without Section 10 rights need permission to be in an urban area longer than 72 hours.
The change that will affect the greatest number of blacks is the easing of the requirement that one must have at least 10 years of continuous employment in one area. Now, a black will be able to qualify even if his employment has been in several different areas.
It is estimated that thousands of blacks in the construction industry, for instance -- who in the past could not qualify for Section 10 rights because their jobs moved them from one location to the next -- will now qualify.
Allowing blacks with Section 10 rights to keep them even if their township is incorporated into a homeland is seen as a minor change aimed at defusing black resistance to homeland incorporation. But Viljoen, the minister who made the announcement, did not spell out whether the children of parents who are incorporated into homelands will be allowed to obtain the same Section 10 rights.
Viljoen's announcement, which carried no indication of whether a new urbanization strategy is coming, worries some analysts who fear it will only increase the plight of rural blacks who cannot live in the cities because of the influx control laws.
Some estimates put black unemployment in South Africa as high as 25 or 30 percent. While Viljoen's announcement may make life easier for blacks who already live in the urban areas, conditions for most of the 10 million blacks now living in the homelands are getting worse.
Those advocating a fundamental change away from influx control believe homeland blacks must be allowed to migrate to the cities if they choose.