Rent strike gives blacks in S. Africa a powerful weapon

Black militants seem to have found, in Soweto's three-month-old rent strike, one of their most powerful protest weapons in years. The refusal to pay rent and accompanying service charges to the local black council is only the latest in a string of boycotts mounted over the past decades. One early target was the government's pass-law system, which, until its repeal earlier this year, limited blacks' right to work or live in major cities and landed millions of offenders in jail. Specific consumer products or white businesses have also been boycotted.

But the effects have been uneven. The protests are often truncated by police muscle.

So far the Soweto rent strike has fallen prey to neither problem. Growing out of longstanding objections to what were seen as exorbitant charges, the rent strike has assumed a wider political character. Its organizers see it as a protest against apartheid. They are also pressing the more immediate demand that troops be withdrawn from black townships.

Officials at the Soweto City Council acknowledge the protest is biting hard. Virtually all of the council's local income -- roughly 5 million South African rands, or $2 million, a month -- comes from rent and service charges. But, say the officials, only about 1 million rands a month have been collected since the protest began June 1.

The average rent-and-service charge for a cramped four-room dwelling is about 50 rands, $20, a month -- or one-quarter to one-third of a typical breadwinner's income. Also, unemployment is high in Soweto.

Attempts to break the protest by evicting tenants for nonpayment have backfired. This prompted last week's protest that left at least 20 people dead from police gunfire. The government has banned funeral services planned for today.

The evictions have been suspended for now. Council officials expect the boycott to worsen in the weeks ahead.

The council's alternatives seem few and unappetizing. Its representatives went to Pretoria this week to plead the seriousness of their financial squeeze and to seek emergency funding from the central government. But with the country in the grips of its worst recession on record, such money is hard to find.

Although Soweto is the largest of South Africa's black townships, its officials say similar rent protests have taken root in a host of other black areas.

Already, say Soweto officials, the shortfall has forced a cutback in some nonessential city services. A longer-term prospect is to interrupt basic services: lights, garbage collection, water. But, says one official, that is a step ``we want to avoid at all cost. It would be a last resort.''

Council officials argue that much of the boycott's support is derived from intimidation by militants or from opportunists' leaping at the chance to skip paying rent. The officials hope to begin denting its impact by letting residents pay either by mail or in a rent office, which opened six weeks ago in Johannesburg. But they say that so far, most tenants are still boycotting.

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit relaying information deemed subversive.

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