A new law that will permit integrated neighborhoods in South Africa for the first time in nearly 40 years went into force Wednesday, but it is expected to affect only new townships and the few areas where blacks already live illegally in large numbers.
The government, hoping the measure will ease international criticism of apartheid, its system of racial separation, hailed the Free Settlement Areas Act as a significant milestone on the road to apartheid reform.
“It’s a very important development,” Information Minister Stoffel van der Merwe said. “Now the whole principle of mixed residential areas has been introduced and we’re dealing with a much more fluid, much more dynamic situation.”
But the government, in an effort to mollify its far-right opponents among the 4.5 million whites, has said it remains committed to segregated neighborhoods for those who want them.
Frederik W. de Klerk, leader of the ruling National Party and heir-apparent to ailing President Pieter W. Botha, vowed in a major policy speech last month that the government will continue to protect “group rights,” the South African term for racially separate housing, schools and hospitals.
But De Klerk said the new legislation will begin to allow some people to form their own “groups” voluntarily, without regard to race.
The new law establishes a Free Settlement Board to hear applications from areas that wish to declare themselves open. The board then makes recommendations to the president, who can declare the areas open. No final decisions are expected this year.
Schools and hospitals will remain segregated, at least at first, and the government says it has not decided how to deal with the new non-racial groups on the voters’ rolls. Elections in South Africa are racially segregated; blacks, who account for three-fourths of the population, have no vote in national affairs.
The government has said that a dozen neighborhoods have expressed interest in becoming open. Officials say the most likely candidates are new townships and several inner-city white districts--Hillbrow in Johannesburg and Woodstock in Cape Town, for example--where more than 50,000 blacks already live in defiance of the law.
The white Conservative Party has demanded that the government enforce residential segregation more strictly, and some far-right whites have recently picketed and vandalized the houses of Indian families living in whites-only areas. Some of those Indian families have received death threats.
The government tried last year to tighten up enforcement of the 1950 Group Areas Act, the apartheid cornerstone that divides South Africa into separate neighborhoods for whites, blacks, mixed-race Coloreds and Indians.
But that move stalled because of a severe housing shortage in black areas and a judge’s ruling that blacks could not be evicted from a whites-only area unless alternative accommodation can be found.
Anti-apartheid activists, who want the Group Areas Act scrapped, complain that a law allowing some open areas will have little effect on the overall level of integration in South Africa.
Most whites in the country live in comfortable suburbs, with neighborhood schools that have empty classrooms and hospitals with empty beds. Most blacks live in high-density townships with overcrowded schools and hospitals and long commutes to work.
Critics also contend that high demand for housing among blacks will create a run on the few open areas and that this will quickly turn them into overcrowded slums.
“You will have second-class areas, ultimately, receiving third-class services,” Tony Leon, leader of the white liberal Progressive Federal Party on the Johannesburg City Council, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok said Wednesday that he has released 230 of the estimated 1,000 political activists held without charge in South Africa. He promised to release an additional 50 by Friday. The black detainees, some held for as long as 32 months, agreed last month to suspend a mass hunger strike after Vlok promised at a meeting with Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu to free “substantial numbers” of them.
Also on Wednesday, the Justice Ministry announced that President Botha had commuted the death sentences of 16 prisoners--a move that human rights groups said may indicate a softening of the government’s attitude toward capital punishment.
South Africa, with 164 hangings in 1987 and 117 last year, has one of the highest per-capita execution rates of any country in the world. Among those reprieved Wednesday was Paul Setlaba, on death row for a murder conviction arising out of the 1985 black consumer boycott. The United Nations, among other groups, had appealed for clemency for Setlaba.