The struggle for South Africa's cities. Tough new laws to control black squatters make old rules `look tame'

Home to Elizabeth Kmanye is shack No. 2008 in Soweto's Mshenguvillie squatter camp. A tiny, one-room structure, Mrs. Kmanye's house is a crazy quilt of corrugated tin, wood, and cardboard. Inside, it is choked by smoke from the coal-burning stove during winter, and soaked by rain that pours through the cracks in summer.

Although this is not Kmanye's idea of an ideal abode, she has few options. For 14 years, she has been on waiting lists for a real home in the teeming townships set aside for South Africa's blacks under its segregationist apartheid laws.

``I'm tired of waiting for a house,'' says Kmanye, almost shouting. ``I want something permanent, and I'm not moving from here until I get it.''

She may have no choice. The government recently proposed tough new laws that critics contend will give it sweeping powers to evict the nearly 4 million people living in squatter conditions - almost one-seventh of the total black population. And relatively few will receive housing in return, critics maintain.

The legislation is only one piece of wide-reaching new laws that political analysts say will allow the government to determine the number and location of blacks in cities. (The other bills, also pending in Parliament, would make it easier to evict blacks and others living in residential areas set aside for whites.)

Analysts say the laws are an attempt by the government to reassert control over the black urban population and, to a lesser extent, to play up to the far right.

They see it as vital to Pretoria's counterinsurgency strategies, which are aimed at ``neutralizing'' dissidents and winning over people by remodeling grossly neglected townships. In doing so, the government hopes to persuade blacks to join - not fight - the system.

And since its resources are limited, analysts say, Pretoria needs to be able to regulate the flood of blacks to urban regions.

``The struggle for power is being refracted through the struggle for the city,'' contends Mark Swilling, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand. ``The main issue is control. The laws will be used to regain control of blacks in a way that will make previous methods look tame.''

Government officials dismiss the gloom-and-doom predictions, however, insisting that the legislation will benefit blacks. By providing for ``orderly urbanization,'' Pretoria can better begin to tackle the pressing problems of land and housing, they say.

These are dilemmas that have beeen decades in the making. As a way of enforcing its pass laws - which sought to control the influx of blacks to cities - Pretoria for years did not allocate new land or build additional houses in townships. Driven by employment prospects, blacks nonetheless poured in from the impoverished tribal ``homelands,'' created for them by the government as part of apartheid.

The government finally abolished the much-hated ``pass laws'' laws in 1986, after two years of violent black upheaval. Right-wing opponents predicted a virtual flood of blacks into metropolitan areas. But Lawrence Schlemmer, director of the Center for Policy Studies, says that while squatter camps and backyard shacks mushroomed, they mostly resulted from a 2.6 percent annual population growth rate - not migration.

Take Transvaal Province, for example, where up to 2 million of the region's 5.5 million blacks live in squatter-like situations, according to a study Mr. Schlemmer recently completed. Schlemmer says the majority were born in the area - children who lived in real houses, then moved out to establish families and were unable to find conventional accommodations.

``What we have is a crisis of urban growth, not urbanization,'' Schlemmer maintains.

A young woman who lives in the white-city section of Soweto, Johannesburg's sprawling black township, knows the problem all too well. Her mother sleeps on a cot in the postage-stamp-size living room, while she shares a bed with her grandmother in a closet-like bedroom; four brothers sleep on the floor. The place is bursting with clothes and bedding stuffed into corners and piled onto chairs.

``If I want to get married, I'll have to move out,'' she says mournfully. ``But it's impossible to find anything in Soweto.''

Thus, the squatter proliferation. While anti-squatting laws exist, lawyers have been able to exploit loopholes to stave off evictions and, in some cases, halt them altogether.

All that could change, however, with the new Prevention of Illegal Squatting Bill, says Geoffrey Budlender of the Legal Resources Center.

Mr. Budlender contends the bill would give the state blanket powers to move squatters where it pleases, along with ``removing the last vestiges of due process.'' Among other things, the new law requires the court to evict a squatter if convicted without having to consider - as before - whether other accommodations are available, says Budlender.

In addition, the legislation would no longer allow an eviction order to be suspended while being appealed, Budlender explains. ``Ultimately, I think this adds up to the reintroduction of forced removals [also suspended in 1986] under the guise of land and housing issues,'' he says.

But Victor Milne of the Transvaal provincial administration pooh-poohs the claims. He says the bill, along with about 50,000 acres of land recently identified to be developed for blacks, will allow the government to impose order on currently chaotic conditions.

``We're going to give people permanent places to live,'' insists Mr. Milne. ``It's beyond my comprehension that they [critics] think unsecured tenure is better than being in a designated area.''

But providing suitable alternatives may not be that simple. For starters, Milne says, only about 18,000 of the 50,000 acres set aside for blacks is usable. In addition, the government cannot foot the housing bill, he explains, and is looking to the private sector to step in. But few commercial builders are moving into low-income housing - the only kind that 70 percent of South Africa's unhoused can buy - Milne says.

Mr. Swilling thinks this will create a sort of ``middle-class influx control.'' Only those blacks with high-paying jobs will be able to afford living in urban areas - thus forming bands of blacks around the cities who are more likely to cooperate with the government.

Sarah Mthombeni, for one, concurs with the conclusion. Mrs. Mthombeni lives with her husband and three children in a one-room Mshenguvillie shack. She has to walk a quarter mile to the nearest water tap and toilet - and then wait in a long, winding queue. Her kids play in the deep canyons of sludge and sewage that criss-cross the camp. She wants out.

But Mthombeni says she cannot find a house under construction in Soweto for less than about $13,000 - well beyond the salary her husband earns as a supermarket shelf-packer. ``We're not asking for luxury,'' she declares, ``just a place where our kids can be comfortable. Where in this country are our houses?''

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