S. Africa theater debate: more than movies at stake. Coming election heightens white dispute over desegregation

The whites of this deeply conservative South African town have only weeks to meet an ultimatum: let blacks into movie houses, or watch theaters close down for all. Rosa Ferreira would sooner let them close. ``Some blacks are fine,'' explains the amiable beauty consultant. ``They are middle class. I would sit next to them in a restaurant.'' Yet most, she says, are different. ``They're not like your Negroes in America. They are not clean....''

But Pieter Swanepoel, a young clerk in a local gun shop, says he is ready for change. ``Sure, there are people who are against it. But this is a minority. The change had to come sooner or later. If a black has the money to go to a cinema, I say let him.''

The debate - forced by South African film distributors under pressure from United States suppliers who have threatened to boycott their business - would be thorny enough under any circumstances. But it is made doubly so by the approach of a white national election.

Most South African theaters have desegregated during the past 18 months. The targets of the ultimatum are strongholds of ultraconservatives, whose support President Pieter Botha's National Party fears losing. It is Mr. Botha's retreat from what is known as ``petty apartheid'' - laws preventing blacks from using ``whites-only'' public facilities, or marrying across the color barrier - that has provided the battle cry for the far right.

``A lot of people have let us know they agree with us,'' says Andries Steyn, manager of a shopping-center cinema that vows to close unless the town desegregates it. ``But they are willing to help us after the election.''

``Grand'' apartheid - notably, residential segregation - seems safe here. Vereeniging is a town for whites, mostly working for a state-owned metals concern or farming the fields. Blacks live in nearby townships.

But here, as throughout the country, attitudes are changing. ``Opening the theaters is inevitable,'' says Gwenda Taylor, who works at a candy store. She says all she resents is the way the change is coming: under pressure from the US. ``What cheek! We don't tell other countries what to do. They have no right to tell us. That's why we have our government,'' she puffs.

The fear of change may prove far worse than change itself here at the Three Rivers Shopping Center, the main arena for this conflict. There is no nighttime bus service from the townships - blacks who work in the shopping center are gone by nightfall. Most residents figure only a few blacks would make use of their new right, anyway.

Besides, Mr. Steyn and fellow movie managers in conservative towns have quietly been desegregating for months. The policy of Ster-Kinekor, the group that runs most South African movie theaters, is not to turn away customers on the basis of race.

Still, this risks prosecution. So when individual American film companies like Columbia Pictures stepped up pressure for desegregation last year, Ster-Kinekor decided to press the case. City councils in the few towns resisting desegregation - including Pretoria; Roedeport, Krugersdorp and Alberton around Johannesburg; and Potchefstroom - were served notice that unless they changed their minds, the theaters would close.

``We had reached a stalemate,'' says Anthony Salisburg, head of the company that owns Ster-Kinekor. ``The pressure from overseas was a not-unwelcome catalyst.'' Adds Steyn: ``We have been writing letters. Now, we are leaving the question up to the people.''

Quietly, at least some government officials also seem to welcome the catalyst. ``I think its good Ster has sent the ultimatum,'' confides one. But with the approaching election - and official ire over foreign pressure - the government is shunning open involvement in the matter.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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