As S. Africa law changes, attitudes prove stubborn

October 29, 1990|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

WESSELTON, South Africa -- A stream of water washes across the narrow tar road that leads into this black township from the adjacent white town of Ermelo, where wide palm trees with pineapple-shaped trunks line neatly kept streets. A water main has burst or some township residents have ripped open a pipe, causing the little flood across the sun-baked road.

Silas Nkonyane, a leader of the local civic association, pronounces the scene a "waste of good water," a commodity that Wesselton residents can't afford to treat casually these days. They are locked in a battle over community services that led to a weeklong cutoff of their water supply by Ermelo's white authorities, who sell water to the township.

"We were shocked when the water supply was cut," said Steve Ngwenya, an attorney representing the Wesselton Civic Association in negotiations over township services, which the residents say are inadequate and overpriced.

"We couldn't provide people with water," he said. "We had no alternative means to help the people. We just had to run LTC helter-skelter trying to find water, trying to find people who could help."

Much of the help came from a nearby Indian community, Cassim Park, where residents allowed blacks to fill buckets of water to take back to the township. Long lines of women with buckets on their heads marched back and forth between the two communities during the eight days that Wesselton was cut off.

There were eyewitness reports that white policemen slashed some of the pails and harassed the township people with dogs. But those reports have been denied by police.

The drama of Ermelo and Wesselton began Oct. 16, one day after the 37-year-old Separate Amenities Act -- which had allowed local authorities to segregate public accommodations -- was scrapped by the national government against the wishes of conservative whites, such as those who run the Ermelo Town Council. A group of young blacks went to the Ermelo public swimming pool to test both the water and the new law. They received a chilly reception but were allowed to swim.

Mr. Ngwenya believes that the township water was cut off in response to the scrapping of the law. "The timing has got a lot to do with that," he said in an interview. "Somebody said maybe they [whites] thought because we'll be swimming in their swimming pool, we won't need water to wash at home."

Ermelo Town Clerk Pieter van Oudtshoorn denied that there was any political motivation on the part of the council, which is controlled by the Conservative Party. The Conservatives have vehemently opposed political reforms being pushed by President F. W. de Klerk, such as the elimination of apartheid laws and negotiations with black groups on a new constitution giving blacks the vote.

Mr. van Oudtshoorn conceded that most whites in Ermelo were not happy about the reforms, but he said the water dispute was unrelated.

"The black people in the township have been involved in a total boycott of payments for many months now," he said. "My council sees this as a purely economic situation. People get what they pay for. And we have repeatedly over months warned that community that if they do not pay for the services that we give to them, then we cannot continue with the services."

He said it was "a lot of nonsense" for black township residents to claim that the Ermelo council's action was racial. "My council took action on a resolution to sever the water supply many months before the repeal of the act on public amenities was announced by the president."

But Mr. Ngwenya noted that negotiations were under way and a temporary agreement had been reached for black residents to pay a reduced rate for services, about $16 a month. He said the agreement was reached in late September and 65 percent of Wesselton residents had paid by mid-October, but the Ermelo council turned the water off anyway.

Jackson Nthembu, a regional official of the African National Congress, blamed the Conservative Party, which controls dozens of small towns in the eastern Transvaal province, where a number of black townships have had services shut off in the past two weeks.

"We believe the Conservative Party is attempting to derail whatever progress is being made toward blacks and whites living together in peace," he said. "Apartheid is not necessarily the laws. There has to be a radical change in attitudes of people, too."

The dispute between Ermelo and Wesselton grows directly out of the apartheid law that mandates separate communities for blacks, whites, Indians and mixed-race people called "coloreds." The Group Areas Act still mandates residential segregation -- at least until next year, when the president says he will propose scrapping that law also.

Under the current setup, the black township of Wesselton, population 50,000, buys its water in bulk from the white town. But Wesselton residents have refused to pay for rent, water or electricity for more than a year.

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