Botha's tough job: convincing blacks to accept gradual reform

South Africa has begun a battle to convince blacks that last week's retreat from key apartheid laws proves the value of ``peaceful, evolutionary'' change. Early signs, indicate, however, that it may be a steep, uphill battle.

President Pieter W. Botha is leading the campaign with signed full-page newspaper advertisements. These ads say his scrapping of the ``pass-law system'' heralds ``a new era of freedom.'' He exhorts blacks to join him around the political negotiating table.

Convincing blacks that such controls will be kept to a minimum is one challenge Mr. Botha faces in trying to wind down political violence and usher in a period of ``reform'' negotiations. Over the past 20 months, political violence has claimed more than 1500 lives.

Other hurdles that lie ahead for Botha include:

Polarization between black ``moderates'' and the militants, who denounce them as sell-outs, is worsening. The past week has seen violent signs of this in two black towns near Johannesburg: Alexandra and Soweto.

In Alexandra, small-scale civil war erupted between young militants -- known as ``comrades'' -- and gangs of hooded men who attacked the homes of anti-apartheid activists. The militants have accused police of direct or indirect involvement, a charge the authorities are investigating.

In Soweto, an alleged anticomrade vigilante known as ``Rambo'' was routed from hiding, murdered, and ``necklaced.'' Necklacing is a punishment meted out to dozens of alleged collaborators in the past year in which rubber tires, doused in gasoline, are placed around the neck of the victim and set alight.

Increasingly, members of black local government bodies are being denounced as collaborators. Last week, Alexandra's mayor became the latest councilor to resign. But Botha's shift from pass laws to the avowedly looser curbs of ``orderly urbanization'' will further pressure these officials by assigning them a major enforcement role.

Some potentially explosive dates lie ahead on South Africa's political calendar.

First comes May Day. Black unions and other groups plan stay-aways and demonstrations, and are pressing the government to declare May 1 a national holiday.

Also looming is June 16 -- the 10th anniversary of a Soweto demonstration that was broken up by police. Some 600 people were killed and the event ushered in weeks of violence.

Conservative whites are pressing Botha to shelve his ``reform'' program altogether. Right-wing hecklers broke up a rally by a Botha prot'eg'e after the pass-law announcement. This backlash could reinforce the government's already evident reluctance to scrap other pillars of apartheid, such as the law barring blacks from living in cities or suburbs designated as ``white'' areas.

Much of the South African government's ``gradual reform'' effort will depend on how ``orderly urbanization'' is enforced.

The policy -- unveiled last week alongside of the announcement of the scrapping of pass laws -- says anti-squatter laws, public-health regulations, and slum-clearance laws will be used ``strictly, but realistically and kindly'' to prevent a wholesale flocking of rural blacks to urban townships like Soweto.

Also crucial will be the enforcement of new ID-card legislation. Under the pass-law system, blacks were required to produce ``passbooks'' indicating their legal movement or residence within a community. Replacing the hated passbook, that has landed millions of blacks in jail for ``illegal'' residence in urban areas, will be a new ID document subject to uniform rules for all races.

Government critics have, however, expressed concern that the rules may not be uniformly enforced -- that police may demand idenitication from blacks more aggresively than from other races.

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