S. Africa Opens 4 Areas to Citizens of All Races : Apartheid: ‘We’re giving people an option,’ an official says. But critics say it’s a half-measure.
For the first time in four decades of residential segregation with no exceptions, the South African government on Friday declared four tracts of land legally open to people of all races.
Among the areas is Cape Town’s historic District 6, which has stood mostly vacant and weed-covered since a vibrant, mixed-race community of 60,000 was forcibly evicted 20 years ago.
“We’re giving people an option,” Planning Minister Hernus Kriel said in announcing the decision. Kriel called the creation of some integrated residential areas “part of the solution” to South Africa’s racial troubles.
“I hope this will be proof of the government’s serious attempt to normalize a lot of situations in our country,” he added.
Nonetheless, the government of President Frederik W. de Klerk has said it remains committed to racially separate neighborhoods for those who want them, so only a few areas are likely to be opened by the Free Settlement Areas Act, passed by Parliament earlier this year.
Under the 1950 Group Areas Act, a legal pillar of apartheid, neighborhoods are strictly divided into white, black, mixed-race and Indian. The free settlement act added a non-racial, or “open areas,” category and established a government board to do the choosing with presidential approval.
Liberal opponents of the government criticized the move as a half-measure that will cause more problems than it solves in a country with a severe housing shortage for the 26-million-member black majority and a housing surplus for the 5-million-member white minority.
“While welcoming any move away from racially zoned areas, we cannot admit to being ecstatic,” said Cas Coovadia of ACTSTOP, a group formed to stop black evictions from white areas. “Opening up pockets of land, surrounded by (segregated) areas, only exacerbates an already critical situation.”
Conservative white opponents of the government, who advocate a return to strict apartheid, called the government’s move “disgraceful.” A week earlier, De Klerk enraged right-wing whites by declaring South Africa’s remaining segregated beaches open to all races and promising to do away with a law that allows municipalities to segregate their recreation halls, parks and other public facilities.
“It’s terrible that a white government can overrule or push their fellow whites into such a bad position,” said Gideon Fourie, spokesman for the town council of Boksburg, an industrial community near Johannesburg. The council is ruled by the Conservative Party.
One of the areas ordered open was Boksburg’s Windmill Park, where fewer than 50 of 270 residential plots have been developed. The Boksburg council tried to drive away 10 Indian residents of Windmill Park earlier this year by cutting off their water.
Also opened was Warwick Avenue Triangle, in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, where a poverty-stricken squatter community of about 500 Indian and mixed-race families now live, and Countryview, an undeveloped area north of Johannesburg.
The government has called the Free Settlement Act one of the most important social and economic reforms. So far the Free Settlement Board has rejected seven applications for open areas and is considering 25 others.
Anti-apartheid groups say the law is a weak attempt to appease government critics while maintaining the essence of residential apartheid.
They also point out that the new law has several loopholes. It makes no provision, for example, for open public schools, which remain segregated by law.
And the voting status of residents of open areas remains questionable. Race-based voter rolls deny the black majority a say in national affairs, while whites, Indians and mixed-race Coloreds elect separate chambers of Parliament. Because there is no “open” chamber of Parliament, whites, Indians and Coloreds moving into an open area might be forced to forfeit their right to vote for national representatives.
The Free Settlement Board has not yet acted on the most sensitive whites-only urban areas, such as Hillbrow and Mayfair in Johannesburg and Woodstock in Cape Town, where tens of thousands of blacks now live illegally. The government has not been able to enforce residential segregation in these so-called “gray areas” because of insufficient housing in black townships.
The once densely populated working-class neighborhood known as District 6, a 220-acre area in the shadow of downtown Cape Town, was bulldozed between 1966 and 1969 when the government declared it a white residential area. The scarred tract became a symbol of the government’s policy of forcible removal, and developers were unwilling to rebuild it. All that remains there today are several churches and a mosque.
British Petroleum of Southern Africa, which has offered to finance redevelopment of District 6 if it were opened to all races, said in a statement from Cape Town on Friday that the government’s decision confirmed a willingness “to heed the cry to end racial discrimination.”
But the firm said it will not proceed with development plans until the government agrees to reopen more neighborhoods. Company Chairman Ian Sims declared as unacceptable “the belief that one small section can be opened to all races while surrounded by segregated areas. Open areas must be the rule, rather than the exception.”