A top government commission called here Thursday for the immediate repeal of South Africa’s bitterly resented “pass laws” that require blacks to get permits to live and work in urban areas and to carry them at all times.
The constitutional affairs committee of the President’s Council, which advises President Pieter W. Botha, urged the government to abandon what has been a policy that for decades has been fundamental to South Africa’s apartheid system and--for the first time in nearly two centuries--to allow blacks to move freely into urban areas in search of work.
Pieter Koornhof, chairman of the President’s Council and a leading member of the ruling National Party, predicted that Botha would adopt the council’s recommendations, which have already been discussed with him. But he added that most will require legislative action and some will need government financing.
A Major Black Grievance
“If these recommendations are accepted and the pass laws abolished, one of the severest conflicts in this society for blacks will have been removed,” Koornhof told a press conference here. “This could be a very major step in building a new South Africa, a peaceful South Africa.”
The President’s Council recommendation, which Botha had sought as the basis for parliamentary action next January, was the second major reform initiative undertaken this week by the government as it tries to pull the country out of the deep political, economic and diplomatic crisis brought on by a year of sustained civil unrest.
But like Botha’s offer on Wednesday to restore the South African citizenship of those blacks who lost it when Pretoria granted their tribal homelands nominal independence, the new “urbanization strategy,” as the council called its package of recommendations, drew both praise and scorn.
Helen Suzman, the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and member of Parliament from the liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party, said that if the measures were adopted, it would be “probably the most important step forward in 30 years.”
Quick Action Urged
Other groups, ranging from the South African Institute of Race Relations to the Assn. of Chambers of Commerce, urged quick government action on what they hailed as the abandonment of a key aspect of apartheid that was intended to preserve South Africa’s cities for the white minority and permit only enough blacks to live in urban areas to ensure sufficient cheap labor.
But Bishop Desmond Tutu, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, dismissed the President’s Council recommendations as “piecemeal reform.”
“I don’t want apartheid reformed,” the black prelate said, “I want it dismantled. It seems reforms are given grudgingly. These guys continue to hold on and only give when you clobber them hard.”
Black political observers commented that, although both the end of the pass laws and the restoration of South African citizenship had long been sought, these moves may well be judged as “too little, too late.”
“The goal has become political power,” a black newspaper columnist said, “and the time for measures such as these has passed. Today, the thinking is that, if we have political power, then we can abolish pass laws or clarify the citizenship issue or do whatever we want. Ironically, the revolution has passed by some of the issues that set it off.”
The pass laws, also known as influx control measures, require blacks to carry at all times a passport-type “reference book,” including their photographs and thumbprints, and to have their permits to live and work in urban areas stamped in the book. The commission recommended that the reference books be replaced by a national identity card, to be carried by all South Africans, including whites.
Protests against the passbooks have been common, growing throughout the 1950s and culminating in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 blacks were killed by police during a demonstration against the laws.
Over the years, there have been more than 20 million arrests for violations of the pass laws, and these continue at the rate of 200,000 to 300,000 a year, according to the Institute of Race Relations. Most of those arrested are rural blacks who have come to the cities to look for work without government permission, but some are legal residents who simply left their passes at home.
Offenders are generally fined the equivalent of $10 to $40 or jailed for as long as 250 days. Many blacks have “pass money” sewn into their clothes so they can pay the fine if arrested.
Policy Called Failure
The report by the constitutional affairs committee of the President’s Council said that the government’s efforts to curb black migration to the cities--efforts it dated to 1792--had not only failed but were responsible for much of the present black anger.
“The influx control measures as applied at present are discriminatory and are in conflict with basic human rights,” the committee declared in one of the most resounding condemnations of what has been basic government policy since the National Party came to power in 1948.
“The committee is particularly concerned about the human suffering and the severe damage to relations between the population groups, particularly those of blacks with whites, caused by influx control.”
The committee said a “positive urbanization strategy” should replace these efforts to control rural migration to the cities and recommended a variety of measures--job opportunities, housing, government development programs, community services--to encourage blacks to settle in certain suitable areas.
Segregation Laws Remain
Prof. A.J.G. Oosthuizen, former director of Rand Afrikaans University’s Urban Studies Institute and the committee chairman, estimated that the lifting of restrictions on black migration to the cities might add 1 million to 3 million to the present urban black population of about 13 million, but many of these would be the relatives of workers now forced to live alone in the cities.
The council’s recommendations, which propose other far-reaching changes to make black townships more livable, do not touch, however, on the Group Areas Act and other legislation that designates residential and business areas for whites and others for blacks, Coloreds and Indians, nor would they end the still widespread racial segregation found in daily life.
But Koornhof said that another council committee was completing a set of further recommendations that would deal with these even more sensitive issues and predicted that Botha would also present them to Parliament in January for approval.
With Botha’s National Party firmly in control of the dominant white House of Assembly in the tricameral Parliament, Koornhof said he is confident of legislative approval of the reforms early next year.
White Alienation Feared
National Party sources said that Botha had decided in principle almost a year ago to move in this direction, but was proceeding cautiously out of fear of alienating whites. The council’s report was intended, these sources said, to give him a broad basis for seeking quick parliamentary action.
The government’s reform initiatives have had little apparent impact, however, on the continuing unrest, now in its 13th month, in which at least 715 persons, mostly blacks, have died.
Five blacks were killed Thursday near Cape Town in the troubled black township of Guguletu and the Crossroads squatter settlement after youths built burning barricades across the adjacent roads and stoned the police armored cars that tried to clear them away. Three died on the scene after they were fired on by police, and two more died later in a clinic in Crossroads. Another person was killed when a black policeman at Langa, a neighboring township, fired on a mob stoning his house.
In Soweto outside Johannesburg, police shot a white high school teacher, A.E. Bester, 50, and 10 of her students with birdshot during an attempt to quell what they described as a “disturbance” at the school during a lunch break. Students said she was trying both to quiet the students and intercede with the police when the policemen opened fire with shotguns; police spokesmen declined to comment on this account. All were treated at local hospitals and released.