In small towns of S. Africa, change is bitter with boycotts and threats

June 20, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

BLOEMHOF, South Africa -- The small white pig wandering around the back of a men's clothing store was the latest weapon in the political and social war being waged across South Africa.

At times the war is fought with bullets and clubs. Eventually, it will be fought with ballots. These days in this small-town battlefield, the chosen weapons are a boycott and counter-boycott, with the accompaniment of stone throwing, tear gas, arrests, threats and other intimidations.

It is a pattern that has become familiar in towns across South Africa as the boycott has become popular with blacks trying to make national policy into local reality.

The pig was supposed to intimidate. The shop was in the town's so-called Indian Center, a group of shops owned by Muslims of Indian descent, people among whom pork is taboo.

"They knew that we are Muslims so we do not eat pig; we are not supposed to touch them, to have anything to do with them," said the shop's proprietor, Saera Haffejee. "This was supposed to disgust us."

Her husband, Mohammed, considered a leader of the town's 50-person Indian community, was a key person in the decision to back the blacks in their two-week struggle in this town west of Johannesburg that seems to encapsulate the perils and possibilities of this country's uncertain future.

In addition to the Indians, the players are 3,000 whites, 15,000 blacks and 2,000 of mixed race, known as coloreds.

The conflict began after the funeral April 18 of Chris Hani, the assassinated black leader. The African National Congress in Bloemhof's nearby black township of Boitumelong decided to deliver a set of demands to the local town council.

Libraries were segregated

They included severance benefits for dismissed workers, a unified, multiracial town council and the end to segregation of town facilities such as Bloemhof's swimming pool, tennis courts and libraries.

White schools have been abandoned for lack of pupils while the township schools are on double shifts.

"The problem is that racial discrimination has been abolished at the national level," said Andrew Hank, local ANC leader. "But at the

grass-roots level, they haven't made a move. They would like to maintain the status quo. We cannot allow this."

When, after several weeks, no reply was received from the town's white leaders, the boycott was on. The town's white businesses responded with a boycott of their own, calling for no sales to blacks and the dismissal of all black workers, including domestic servants.

Intimidated by whites who the blacks say are members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a neo-Nazi white supremacist group, blacks stayed away from Bloemhof's commercial strip. They did their shopping at skuzas, small shops people in Boitumelong operate out of their houses, and at the Indian Center, where store owners agreed not to honor the white counter-boycott.

In response, whites regularly gathered at a nearby street corner and stopped whites in cars, telling them not to shop at the Indians' stores.

Eventually, on May 20, there was the seemingly inevitable confrontation at the gates of the township between stone-throwing youths and tear-gas and birdshot-firing police. A half-dozen residents ended up in the hospital, 29 in jail.

A representative of the National Peace Committee arrived from a nearby town. The Rev. Eric Adolf was able to get blacks and whites together for an unprecedented negotiating session, held in a room at the town's hotel where blacks had never before been admitted.

An agreement was worked out. The boycotts would end. Fired workers would return. Negotiations would continue. The prisoners would be released. Blacks and whites shook hands across the table as equals, an unheard of event in this part of the world.

But when Mr. Hank took the agreement back to a meeting in the township, his younger, more radical constituents wanted to know why the released prisoners hadn't accompanied him. They refused to go along with the agreement until the detainees were free. When the prisoners came out the next day without the charges dropped, the boycott was back on.

Stores almost empty

That night, a group of about 100 whites gathered at the gates of the township. Youths inside responded with burning barricades. Tensions were high, but no shots were fired.

On a Saturday morning, normally the busiest shopping day of the week, the main street of Bloemhof was tranquil during the boycott.

At a butcher shop with no customers, the proprietor said business wasn't down at all -- and promptly called his black workers from a back room to prove that he had not fired them. The local pharmacist also said that the near emptiness of his store was normal for Saturday morning.

Attie Gouss, behind the counter at a liquor store, did admit that business was down about 30 percent.

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