The South African government's decision to drop the ban on marriage or sex between blacks and whites is causing a backlash among right-wing whites. But blacks do not appear impressed by the move. ``It's a case of too little, too late, from the viewpoint of blacks,'' said Beyers Naude, a leading opponent of the government's racial policy. Mr. Naude is general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, which has a large black membership.
The government decision will scrap two of the country's most criticized segregationist laws -- the Mixed Marriages Act, which prevents whites from marrying nonwhites, and a section of the Immorality Act which outlaws sex across the color line.
The extreme right-wing Herstigte (Reconstituted) National Party and the Conservative Party are preparing a campaign to oppose the government's decision. They are distributing pamphlets that allege ``liberals and communists'' conceived the campaign to scrap the laws.
Wary of a right-wing backlash, the government has claimed that repealing the two laws will not affect other laws crucial to maintaining apartheid, its policy of enforced social, economic, and political segregation based on race.
But the government does admit that there will have to be ``administrative adaptations'' to certain other apartheid laws in order to accommodate racially mixed married couples and their children.
The implications of the decision on the two laws are enormous, because the whole policy of apartheid rests on a foundation of racial differentiation. In South Africa race determines where people live, how much political expression they are permitted, what recreational facilities they use, and what schools their children attend.
Once interracial marriage is allowed and the strict divisions between the races are breached, observers believe the whole fabric of apartheid laws will be threatened. In time, they say, the laws will probably collapse like a row of dominoes.
The government announced its decision on the two laws after the first major adjudication by a joint committee of members of all three houses of the newly constituted Parliament. The three houses represent whites, Coloreds (persons of mixed race), and Indians.
The committee found there was no justification for keeping the laws. Only members of the Conservative Party opposed this view. The Herstigte National Party is not represented in Parliament and therefore did not have a representative on the committee.
The government's prompt acceptance of the report is considered one of its most important and politically daring reformist gestures.
Opposition to the laws has been building steadily. The major English-language churches, all of which have a majority of black members, have rejected them for years. And many of their ministers have defied the law and married people of different races at church ceremonies.
The powerful Afrikaaner churches have dragged their heels, however. In fact, it was the strongest of these -- the Dutch Reformed Church, to which most members of the present South African government and their supporters belong -- that was instrumental in getting the laws introduced in the first place.
That church claimed in 1945 that the ``disturbing'' increase in marriages between blacks and whites threatened white civilization in South Africa with ``extinction'' -- something those on the right wing still fear -- and claimed that there was a biblical basis for forbidding it.
The ruling National Party came to power in 1948 on the basis of its apartheid policy. In 1949 the law against marriage between whites and blacks was passed. The law against sex between whites and blacks was passed in 1957.
Over the years the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church had second thoughts about their earlier views. They backed down from declaring that there was a biblical basis for forbidding interracial marriages. For a long time, though, they maintained that even if such marriages were not actually a ``sin,'' they were nonetheless socially unacceptable and would create serious ``problems.''
Two years ago, prompted by younger clergymen who refused to let the matter rest, the Cape Province Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church finally overturned church policy. It ruled that ``marriage between people of different racial groups can never be considered immoral on scriptural grounds.''
International pressure was also mounting. President Pieter W. Botha, then the prime minister, finally said that his government would see if there were ways in which the two laws could be ``improved.''
But it quickly became clear that there was no way to improve the laws except to scrap them. As a leading Afrikaans academic, Prof. Erika Theron of Stellenbosch University, declared, mere tinkering with the laws would be tantamount to ``putting perfume on a dungheap.''