AS South Africa's apartheid crumbles, its national Humpty Dumpty is getting put back together again. The fake mini-states that white South Africa carved out of itself to justify denying black Africans the vote are now being folded back into the parent country. In 1976, South Africa declared the Transkei, a black homeland on its east coast, an independent country. In 1978, Bophuthatswana, a collection of arid black reserves stretching from the edge of white Pretoria to the borders of Botswana, and then across to the Orange Free State, also claimed independence. Venda, a pocket of land along the Limpopo River, and the Ciskei, a sliver stretching inland from East London, followed suit in 1979 and 1980.
These so-called independent homelands, and six other dependent homelands that refused to secede from South Africa, are the successors to reserves for blacks demarcated in 1913 and 1936. Although blacks then accounted for at least 80 percent of the population of South Africa, the total area of the reserves and homelands has never amounted to more than 13 percent of the nation's acreage.
That 13 percent was never sufficient for the populations or the cattle and sheep of the homelands. All are now badly overgrazed and overcrowded, bitter places of rural poverty, under-education, and very high population growth. Only Bophuthatswana has any capacity to generate wealth, from platinum and vanadium. All the homelands largely subsist on funds provided through annual appropriations by South Africa's parliament.
Last month the movement to end the homeland experiment accelerated. By permitting South Africa to appoint four cabinet ministers to help run the small state, the Ciskei gave up its local sovereignty. Brig. Gen. Oupa Gqozo, Ciskei's president, called his new arrangement with South Africa "the first step on the road to incorporation into a new, nonracial South Africa." He thus aligned himself and his mini-state with the African National Congress (ANC), which seeks to run a non-fragmented, unified country.
But what is equally important is that the same white government that created the homelands, yet failed to give them international credibility, is now prepared to play to help in their dismantling.
Doing so in Ciskei will almost certainly lead to the demise of a separate Transkei, where Gen. Bantu Holomisa, its leader, is close to the ANC. Venda is too small and isolated to hold out long. That leaves Bophuthatswana, where Lucas Mangope has ruled defiantly since 1978. His separate government will almost surely be the last to fall, but his is also the most beleaguered by the ANC and citizens who want to be linked again with South Africa.
South African troops have suppressed coups in Bophuthatswana. But coups brought Generals Holomisa and Gqozo to power, and there has been a coup in Venda. Both Holomisa and Gqozo ousted ruthless, corrupt civilians who had worked closely with South Africa. It is not clear that South Africa will act against the next anti-Mangope protest.
White South Africa understands that its "independent" homelands were never independent, and that they and most of the dependent homelands never had an opportunity to be viable economically or politically. The attempt to confine black political freedom to the homelands has failed. All attempts to decentralize South Africa economically have also failed. Now the homelands are largely labor reservoirs and sad domains of the unemployed and the unemployable.
In the post-apartheid world that is dawning, the homelands could become provinces or regions in an ANC-dominated country. But even the role of these old reserves as regions is questionable. Everything that was rotten about apartheid, and the Africans who collaborated with the system, is, for blacks, encapsulated in the homelands.
Now that the 1913 and 1936 land acts are being repealed, blacks will no longer be confined as farmers to the homelands. Thus blacks will attempt to move onto better land outside the homelands, and the bureaucracies and minor governments of the homelands will soon wither.
What to do with those whose livelihoods are connected with the homelands, and whose political efforts were engaged there, is another question. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland, will wonder what will happen to his political base as the homeland system decays. He, unlike the other homeland leaders, may have a sure enough ethnic base to remain a strong rival of Nelson Mandela of the ANC. But as the other homelands rapidly lose their purpose, so will the notion of a reunifi ed South Africa become politically dominant.