South Africa changing rapidly as apartheid laws fall

February 03, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SEBOKENG, South Africa -- Thirty-six varnished wood coffins sat in the middle of a big soccer field, surrounded by wailing women, stony-faced men and youths wearing military-style uniforms trimmed with yellow, black and green braid.

African National Congress flags, also yellow, black and green, fluttered in the wind, marking the funeral as an ANC political event.

Outside the stadium sat a half-dozen police tanks and vanseach filled with white men in blue uniforms with stern expressions. A single blue and yellow police helicopter circled the stadium three times, agitating mourners in the crowd who alternately shook their fists, waved at the chopper and beckoned it to come down.

"Give them the contempt they deserve. Ignore them," shouteArchbishop Desmond Tutu, who addressed the 15,000 mourners a funeral service last Sunday for victims of a massacre in this troubled black township.

The crowd heeded his advice, and the helicopter flew off into the distance until its loud clattering could no longer be heard.

The fact that ANC supporters could ignore the police at such aevent demonstrates a fundamental change from the old South Africa whose harsh racist policies earned it pariah status around the world. A mass funeral attended by black activists generally ended in ugly clashes with police, who fired tear gas and birdshot into the crowd. People would be carted off to jail for carrying the ANC flag.

Most ANC leaders were in jail, in exile or under some form of garule until President Frederik W. de Klerk began shaking things up with a series of political reforms. For South Africa, which long resisted the idea of abandoning white privilege and minority rule, it has been a time of momentouschange.

The most significant changes began Feb. 2, 1990, when Mr. dKlerk announced what one political scientist calls the "deregulation of black politics."

Mr. de Klerk legalized the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress and other anti-apartheid groups that had been banned for decades. He also lifted restrictions that served to muzzle or limit the political activities of legal groups, such as the broad-based United Democratic Front.

"Now black or multiracial political organizations in this countrcan speak as freely as they can in a Western European country," said John Kane Berman, director of the South African Institute on Race Relations.

Those groups speak mainly about ending apartheid, removinMr. de Klerk's National Party from power and electing a "non-racial" government.

The South African president agrees that apartheid must go, and he insists that the country is on an irreversible course toward ending it and building a democratic society.

Last year, his government repealed the 37-year-old lasegregating public accommodations and promised that other apartheid laws would go, too.

He kept his promise Friday by formally proposing to repeal two other racist laws this year: the Group Areas Act, which segregates residential areas, and the Land Acts, which reserve 87 percent of the country's land for its white minority.

The president also said he would repeal the Population Registration Act, but aides said his government would replace it with measures that would keep South Africa's racial classification system in place until a new constitution is written.

Mr. de Klerk also has released dozens of political prisoners anallowed hundreds of exiles to return to South Africa, many to take part in negotiations aimed at drafting a new constitution giving blacks equal rights with whites.

"There can be no doubt that there has been a change," said Walter Sisulu, a veteran ANC leader who was released from prison in October1989, the month after Mr. de Klerk became president.

"The very negotiations which we are engaged in signify a change. It is the beginning, of course, of a long process to put right what has been destroyed over centuries," Mr. Sisulu said.

The divisions between black and white present an obstacle tbuilding the new South Africa, but so do the divisions between rival black groups that became evident after anti-apartheid organizations began competing openly for black support and for position at the negotiating table with the white government.

Optimism about a peaceful and prosperous new South Africa has been dampened substantially by an ugly outbreak of violence in black townships such as Sebokeng.

There are deep suspicions that police or right-wing elements might be fanning the flames of black township violence, hiring hit men and distributing weapons. But most of the township wars have involved clashes between blackrivals rather than between black activists and white police.

In Sebokeng, 42 people were slaughtered Jan. 12 whilattending a funeral vigil for a slain ANC activist in what was reported to be an attack by a rival black grouping.

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