AN ORCHESTRATED campaign of defiance against racially segregated public facilities was launched by anti-apartheid groups here Wednesday. It has breathed new life into popular resistance against apartheid and created a dilemma for the Pretoria government. ``We have today laid the foundations of a new society,'' said trade union federation leader Jay Naidoo. ``We will destroy apartheid wherever it exists.'' The defiance campaign, which marks a switch in strategy by the anti-apartheid movement from the insurrectionary tactics of the mid-1980's, got under way Wednesday at partly segregated state hospitals in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban.
It has the full backing of the ecumencial South African Council of Churches, representing some 12 million Christians nationwide, and major anti-apartheid groups.
The relatively liberal Democratic party, which is hoping to win seats from the government in the Sept. 6 election, has asked for the defiance campaign to be called off lest it lead to violence.
The authorities, who have sweeping powers under a three-year-old nationwide emergency to crush dissent, dropped earlier threats to crack down on the protest and allowed it to proceed.
Hundreds of black patients, watched by the international media and western diplomats, converged on eight targeted hospitals and demanded treatment.
Normally the hospitals apply a strict screening procedure which is heavily weighted against black patients. But they adopted a flexible approach Wednesday and treated and discharged more than 200 of the black patients. None were admitted to the hospitals.
Leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), the major anti-apartheid coalition for groups aligned to the outlawed African National Congress, declared the exercise a ``victory for the people.''
``The hospitals have been forced to accept that they will have to treat people regardless of race from now on,'' said Mr. Naidoo, general secretary of the 1-million strong Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Officials of the provincial administrations, which are directly in charge of hospital services, said there had been no change in policy.
Health Minister Willem Van Niekerk, who deplored the use of hospitals as venues of protest, said any changes to the law regarding hospitals would have to be made in the white-dominated parliament in Cape Town.
In South Africa, most private hospitals are racially integrated, but state-run hospitals are mainly segregated. They follow a policy of admitting blacks only in cases of emergency and when specialized facilities are not available at other hospitals in the vicinity.
Black hospitals are presently suffering chronic overcrowding and a resultant deterioration of services.
At the massive Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, the densely-populated black satellite of Johannesburg, many patients lie on the floor while outpatients wait up to two days to be treated.
In sharp contrast, white hospitals - which have begun to admit blacks selectively in recent years - often stand half empty due to a chronic nursing shortage and lack of funds.
An estimated 1 million blacks who live in and around central Johannesburg must choose between the overcrowed Hillbow Hospital or travel 12 miles to the more crowded Baragwanath.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok conceded that that the days's events had gone off peacefully.
The pro-government daily newspaper, Beeld, commended the government in an editorial for exercising restraint and limiting its role to a monitoring one.
Earlier strategies of insurrection often led to uncontrolled outbursts of violence, grizzly assassinations of collaborators, and daily confrontation with security forces. It alienated white activists and sowed disunity among blacks.
The defiance campaign is the first initiative by anti-apartheid leaders which has carefully avoided confrontation with the authorities and seeks to draw in white activists and liberals like Professor Clive Rosendorff.
``Despite the official hysteria, we have declared that the Johannesburg hospital is now open to all regardless of race,'' said Professor Rosendorff, dean of the the faculty of medicine at Johannesburg's liberal Witwatersrand University.
``This is the beginning of the desegregation of all segregated facilities in our land,'' he said. ``What was done here today was done in the great tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.''
The campaign also plans to focus on segregated schools, transport and recreational facilities and to challenge widespread restrictions on anti-apartheid leaders and groups.