Slight thaw in South African apartheid brings no political gains for blacks

There have been changes in South Africa's strict system of racial segregation. But apartheid continues to dominate the lives of blacks. Blacks refer to segregation in the social sphere -- where many of the changes have taken place -- as ``petty apartheid.'' For many blacks, these changes do not begin to address the central issue of political power.

Some of the key changes in recent years have been:

In 1983 South Africa adopted a new constitution which provided for participation of Coloreds (individuals of mixed race) and Indians in Parliament. Blacks were given no representation in the central government.

In 1985, the government abolished the Mixed Marriages Act. While it is now permissible for members of different races to marry in South Africa, children born in such families are classified as either Colored or black and are restricted by the laws governing those races.

The government has also accepted in principle the concept that some blacks living near large cities are permanent residents of South Africa and not soley citizens of one of the 10 designated black ``homelands.'' All the rights this status confers have not been spelled out.

One right which has been acknowledged for urban blacks is property ownership.

Since 1979, blacks have been allowed to legally form their own trade unions.

In spite of these reforms, blacks live with many constraints:

At birth, all South Africans are classified by race. This classification governs where an individual may live, what schools he may attend. Black schools and residential areas are inferior. Blacks are also have poorer job opportunities.

Blacks are given citizenship in South Africa and in one of the homelands. When a homeland is designated independent -- as four have been -- all blacks associated with that homeland lose their citizenship in South Africa.

At age 16, each black is fingerprinted, photographed, and issued a ``reference book'' which specifies where he may live, go to school, and work. Reference books must be produced on demand of law enforcement officials. (Whites are also required to have identity documents, but are rarely asked to produce them.)

Blacks cannot vote in central government elections in South Africa. Citizens of the black homelands can vote for the nominal governments of those regions, but the South Africa government retains substantial control over the homelands and voter apathy is pronounced.

Public transportation and rest rooms are segregated in most cities and blacks are restricted from using public recreation facilities in many areas.

Rules requiring segregation in sports competition and in restaurants have been eased. The changes leave it to the individual athletic club or restaurant owner to determine whether blacks will be permitted to use such facilities. This is much different from Civil Rights legislation enacted in the US in the 1960s, which lifted all racial bans on the use of public facilities.

Athletic facilities and restaurants are opening up to all races, principally in the main urban centers of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. One motivating factor in this move toward desegregation has been the migration of whites to the suburbs, which has left inner-city businesses in need of new customers.

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