South Africa blacks boycott white-owned stores to force change

Blacks in South Africa are increasingly using their economic clout as a weapon against the government. Boycotts of white-owned stores are proving effective at the regional level. And some blacks are urging that the tactic be used nationwide unless certain political demands are met.

Boycott efforts are now focused on Pretoria, South Africa's administrative capital, and Johannesburg, the center of the country's economy.

In both areas, blacks are being urged, and in some cases violently intimidated, by boycott organizers not to patronize white-owned stores during the Christmas buying season. Many white businesses depend on black patrons for their survival. Blacks make up over 70 percent of South Africa's population.

Leaders of the boycott efforts say they are designed to reinforce black demands for an end to the state of emergency in effect in 30 townships, the removal of Army and police patrols from the townships, and the release from jail of those who have not been charged with a crime.

Pretoria has already experienced three weeks of the boycott. Business in Pretoria's white shopping areas has been markedly reduced, with some shopkeepers reporting that sales are off by as much as 90 percent. The boycott was introduced in Johannesburg only last week, but already there are signs the boycott is beginning to reduce sales at some businesses.

A successful boycott of white stores in Port Elizabeth ended two weeks ago, after many of the demands by blacks were met.

Perhaps emboldened by their success, Port Elizabeth blacks have decided to organize now for a fully national boycott next April if no drastic political reforms have been instituted by then.

The Port Elizabeth boycott came to an end following negotiations between white business representatives, members of the black community, and the government security forces. Boycott leaders who had been summarily arrested by the police were released. Then, on the eve of a black mass meeting to discuss further boycott steps, the Army and riot police withdrew from the township.

The community then decided -- with roars of applause -- to suspend the boycott. Conditions in the area reverted to relative calm after months of violence.

Extending the boycott of white businesses in Pretoria to Johannesburg and its surrounding towns and cities in the area is part of a broader drive to give the Christmas holiday season in South Africa a special significance.

Boycott organizers say it would be wrong to enjoy Christmas festivities amid the ongoing upheaval in the black townships, which has claimed more than 900 lives since last September, 1984. They have called instead for a somber ``black Christmas.'' Several churches have endorsed a separate call for a ``Christmas of concern.''

One group of churches has suggested that if people exchange gifts this Christmas they should be wrapped with black ribbons and that there should be no decorations on Christmas trees except a solitary candle.

In some areas, there are demands that there should, in fact, be no festivities at all. Youths in Soweto, the large township near Johannesburg, broke up a free jazz festival because they considered it showed ``disrespect'' for people who have died in the unrest of the past 15 months.

In some areas gangs of youths deal ruthlessly with those who appear to have ignored the boycott.

These gangs stop and search cars from the city. If they find anything bought in the white areas they confiscate or destroy it, sometimes even tearing new clothes off of people. On occasion they have forced shoppers to eat and drink food purchases on the spot, including raw food and bottles of cooking oil. There have been reports that people have been forced to drink bottles of detergent.

Black mothers, fearing reprisals if they buy baby food from white shops, or other requirements for their infants not available in the townships, often take their babies to town with them. Some are staying over in white homes.

Following the lead of the white businessmen in Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Johannesburg businessmen are trying now to arrange to negotiate with boycott leaders.

However, many organizers have apparently been arrested by the police who are also intensifying patrols in the townships to try to stop youths intimidating people who continue to break the boycott.

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