South Africa, plagued by violence, has come to an important crossroads. President Pieter W. Botha's pledge on Friday to scrap a series of travel and residential restrictions on blacks has ushered in a period of testing for his government.
Initial signs are that the announced change, potentially the weightiest yet introduced in the country's apartheid system of racial segregation, has failed to dampen pressure for more far-reaching political reforms.
The next few days should provide answers to key questions raised by the Botha announcement:
Will the scrapping of so-called ``influx control'' be accompanied by easing of related rules under which similar restrictions could be effected?
What kinds of other long-term controls may be introduced, under a policy of ``orderly urbanization'' to be unveiled in draft form at midweek -- and when will these take effect?
Will the Botha initiative be sufficient to win him credibility among black leaders, a commodity the government has found scarcer and scarcer over the months?
President Botha announced that beginning Wednesday he was ending all arrests and prosecutions under influx-control laws and releasing blacks still held under them.
The system requires the nation's black majority to carry passbooks. Anyone not producing the pass can be arrested. The document is the centerpiece of influx control. This has barred blacks from living in townships such as Soweto -- near white cities -- unless they were born there, have worked in the area for 10 years, or are dependents of such persons.
Under separate legislation, which is not being repealed, the only blacks allowed to live in white urban areas, proper, are servants. Scholars estimate that 18 million blacks have been arrested for pass-law violations since 1910.
Read literally, the Botha statement means no such restrictions will be in force between Wednesday and whenever the orderly-urbanization policy is voted into law. This could take weeks.
Officials note they have quietly been reducing pass-law arrests in recent months, a statement born out by the almost-empty holding cells in the main pass-law court in Johannesburg. The government says it is determined to go forward in this spirit.
If the literal interpretation of Botha's remarks holds sway, blacks could move freely from rural areas to urban townships, or from township to township, for the first time in years. Families could settle near migrant-work areas instead of awaiting infrequent visits from breadwinners living in mine or factory dormitories. But under anti-squatter laws, the authorities could still fine or jail such new arrivals in urban areas.
Since many blacks are also classified as citizens of tribal ``homelands'' set up under the apartheid system, this too could provide a mechanism for restrictions.
The draft proposals on orderly urbanization, moreover, are widely expected to stipulate that blacks without jobs and fixed dwellings could be barred from the townships.
Botha said blacks would still have to carry their passbooks, but only as identity documents. Government officials reject opponents' charges that alternative bars on blacks will be brought into force.
Yet deep skepticism remains, especially among young urban blacks who have been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid violence. The skepticism -- greeting an announcement that, several years ago, might have caused gasps of welcome among at least some black leaders -- has highlighted the polarization in South African politics.
Black leaders such as clergyman Desmond Tutu and Winne Mandela have said the government must scrap all apartheid legislation, end restrictions on black politicians, and share central-government power with the black majority. Botha has so far ruled out abandonment of all laws classifying South Africans by race. He has stood firm on the Group Areas Act, which bars blacks from living in white city neighborhoods and suburbs.