A few years ago, the fate of the black township of Lawaaikamp would have been speedily resolved: Its 5,000 residents would have been summarily trucked out to the government's chosen ``relocation'' venue. But with the official gradual retreat from the policy of ``forced removal'' since 1985, this cramped township outside the city of George, on the southern coast, has become a testing ground for a controversial new government approach. Called ``orderly urbanization,'' it officially is described as a move to apply universally recognized standards of public health and urban planning to some of the black-commuter townships that lie near most major cites in South Africa.
On the ground, the amended policy is evolving into a network of new ``site and service'' townships - typically well outside city centers, but connected to them by new commuter roads - where blacks are given subsidized plots and help in building permanent homes. In Lawaaikamp and elsewhere, thousands of blacks have moved out to the new developments. Officials have meanwhile rejected calls from some residents, determined to stay put, to instead earmark ``orderly urbanization'' funds for building long-overdue sewerage, electricity, and other facilities for existing townships.
``Anti-removal'' lobbies have estimated that the government wants to move at least 30,000 blacks in townships around the country. Moreover, tens of thousands of people forced out of the huge Crossroads squatter town near Cape Town during a small-scale civil war there last year await resettlement.
Anti-apartheid groups have charged that the new policy amounts to a subtly modernized form of apartheid-style social engineering. ``Yes, the government says forced removals are over,'' says Laurine Platzky of the national Committee Against Removals. ``But what we now see is forced removal in other guises.''
Lawaaikamp is one of at least half a dozen established townships or squatter towns whose residents the government has said it wants to move to new developments. In this case, the hope is to shift the residents to Sandkraal, some two miles farther out than Lawaaikamp.
Lawaaikamp has attracted particular political controversy because of the well-organized resistance by a minority determined to hold on to a settlement in which many of them were born and raised. Moreover, there have been a number of attempts, yet unsuccessful, to use sticks as well as carrots to clear out the more than 1,000 residents who refuse to move.
A few months ago, Lawaaikamp was ``redefined'' under South Africa's residential segregation laws as an area for mixed-race Coloreds. In August, President Pieter Botha wrote the leader of Lawaaikamp's holdout civil association that an upgrade of the existing township was ``not desirable or practical'' - adding that he was ``against forced removal ... unless it is accompanied with the provision of better living conditions.''
``To ensure that the poor conditions at Lawaaikamp do not persist, I believe it to be in the best interests of the community to make full use of the improved living conditions'' at Sandkraal, the letter said. Later, fliers were distributed to the remaining residents saying the George municipality trusted they would all move to Sandkraal by the end of September.
In what some antigovernment groups allege is a further form of ``removal'' pressure, several fires have broken out recently at homes in the township. When one resident, Lilian Cube, received a judicial OK to rebuild, the George municipal authorities responded by saying she could do so only if she first submitted architectural plans for government approval. Traditionally, no such plans have been required. In new areas like Sandkraal, plans are necessary for permanent homes - but the requirement is waived to allow construction of a temporary dwelling.
That the new government approach represents a major change from pre-1985 apartheid is undeniable. Beginning in the 1950s, at least 2 million blacks were moved in this fashion to outlying townships or rural ``homelands.'' In Lawaaikamp and other similarly threatened settlements, officials have, at least so far, lived up to pledges not to force residents out. And the Lawaaikamp eviction deadline has come and gone without incident.
In the past year, the government also has announced related retreats from apartheid - a doctrine whose ultimate aim was to create a ``white'' South Africa in which urban blacks would figure as mere sojourners housed in government-planned commuter townships safely separate from major cities. President Botha has repealed the so-called ``pass laws,'' under which blacks were jailed or expelled for staying in urban areas without proof they were born in the area or had worked there for 10 years. He also has declared acceptance of a still-undefined ``permanent status'' for urban blacks.
The town clerk of George, Carel du Plessis, repeated in a telephone interview last week that there would be no forced resettlement of the Lawaaikamp hold-outs. ``We will continue to negotiate with them,'' he said. Particularly given the fact that more than half of the township's residents had already moved to Sandkraal, said Mr. Du Plessis, ``It is simply not cost-effective to upgrade the old area.
``Yes, there is some measure of resistance among a minority. But overall, the trend is to go to Sandkraal. We have more applications than we can handle.''
Will Lawaaikamp ultimately be allowed to survive? Implying that this was a political issue, the prerogative of the central government, Du Plessis said this could not be ruled out. But he said he felt confident that ultimately all its residents would choose to move. ``The schools, the community services, will be in Sandkraal,'' he explained, adding that those who move generally receive the equivalent of $500 and considerable help in building permanent homes.
Du Plessis flatly denied any official involvement in the recent fires. He said investigations showed they either were deliberately set by departing residents, or were accidents that had followed parties.
He indicated that Mrs. Cube, for her part, would be allowed to stay - if and when she could present acceptable plans for a permanent house. ``They [the anti-Sandkraal forces] say they want an upgrade,'' he declared. ``It is reasonable, therefore, that they should accept the need for planned dwellings.''
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.