COVER

Reforming the race laws

ANDREW BILSKI May 5 1986
COVER

Reforming the race laws

ANDREW BILSKI May 5 1986

Reforming the race laws

SOUTH AFRICA

Obed Zilwa, an 18-year-old black photographer in Cape Town, was both stunned and jubilant when he heard the report. “Free at last,” he said. “This alone will make life bearable for a black man.” Zilwa was reacting to Pretoria’s announcement last week that South Africa’s pass laws, a widely disliked instrument for the enforcement of apartheid, would be repealed. The pass book—a small, plasticcovered document known locally as a “dompas”

(stupid pass)—denotes the holder’s race, work record and residential rights. It is used to exclude unemployed blacks from white urban areas.

Last year alone 132,000 blacks—the only people subject to the pass laws—were arrested for violations. Now, President Pieter Botha says that laws limiting the movement of blacks will be abolished or amended. Declared Botha: “No South African will ever suffer the indignity of arrest for a pass offence again.”

Some black leaders greeted his promise cautiously. They noted that new rules may still restrict the freedom of nonwhites. But Botha, in a white paper presented to Parliament, proclaimed the end of “influx control,” the government policy that restricts blacks without permits to 10 so-called tribal homelands. More than half of South Africa’s 24 million blacks reside in the homelands, while about 11 million—mostly migrant workers—live in the squalor of segregated black townships near white areas. The purpose of pass laws—in effect since early this century—was spelled out in a government commission in 1922: “The native should only be allowed to enter urban areas, which are essentially the white man’s creation, when he is willing to enter and minister to the needs of the white man, and should depart therefrom when he ceases to so minister.” Now, the government is setting out a new condition for black residence in cities—the availability of housing. And the passbook, which the banned African National Congress calls a “badge of slavery,” will be replaced by a uniform identity document for all South

Africans. Government spokesmen say that it will now accept blacks as permanent residents of South Africa and that it will stop their forced removal to homelands. But according to the government, blacks living in the four so-called “independent” homelands will still be considered foreign nationals, pending negotiations on possible dual citizenship.

Many opposition leaders say that

they distrust the new policy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Some form of influx control may be brought in through the back door.” Blacks wanting to move to already crowded urban areas still have to find suitable accommodation, as defined by the government, and some of them say they are concerned that the right of free movement will be more theoretical than real. “People won’t be able to get jobs without approved housing,” said Beulah Rolnick, a member of Black Sash, a white women’s group that helps blacks caught in the web of apartheid laws. “And we all know that there is no housing available.”

Goverment spokesmen say that by repealing the pass laws they have abolished another key pillar of apartheid. In 1984 Pretoria created two new chambers of parliament—one for Asians and another for coloreds, or

people of mixed race. Last year the government repealed laws that prohibited interracial marriage and sex. Still, some blacks are clearly pessimistic. They point out that Pretoria is continuing to evade the central demand of black South Africans: the right to vote. Murphy Morobe, a spokesman for the United Democratic Front (UDF)—the country’s largest legal anti-apartheid group, with two million members—said that Botha “still has to answer on the question of political representation for blacks at the decision-making level.”

It is unlikely that the repeal of the

pass laws will end the racial violence that has claimed nearly 1,500 lives in the past 26 months. Pretoria may, in fact, have placed further strains on race relations by introducing—on the same day as the pass-law reforms—a Public Safety Amendment Bill to broaden police powers. Opposition leaders say that the new bill is an attempt to reimpose, under another guise, a seven-month-long state of emergency that Botha lifted in March after international pressure for moderation. The police bill underlined black mistrust of Botha’s new urban policy. Said a spokesman for the UDF: “This draconian bill is a clear warning to all persons who may have thought Botha’s scrapping of the pass laws means reform.”

—ANDREW BILSKI in Toronto with CHRIS ERASMUS in Cape Town

CHRIS ERASMUS