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S. Africa polls show shifts in black, white views

It all depends on which poll you read -- and there are many here these days. Increasing polarization of black and white political views, and increasing black impatience for political change, is the message of a recent opinion poll taken among blacks in this country.

However, a separate poll of white South Africans indicates a slow, but definite, swing to slightly more liberal racial attitudes among them.

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The first poll was of blacks in Soweto, the huge black township near South Africa's financial capital, Johannesburg.

It was to find out what was the black reaction to a dramatic holdup a few weeks ago in a bank in the country's administrative capital, Pretoria.

Three black gunmen burst into the bank with Soviet-type machine guns and a sack of hand grenades, took whites as hostages, and made various political demands.

Finally, all three were killed when police stormed in. Two white hostages also were killed and several wounded in the shoot-out.

To many whites, the whole episode was despicable and an open-and-shut case of urban terrorism by blacks which could not be condoned in any way.

But it soon became evident that black attitudes to the affair were vastly different. For a start, huge crowds gathered when the gunmen were buried in Soweto. More than 10,000 people lined the streets and crowded the cemetery.

There were demonstrations, buses were stoned, and finally the police fired tear gas to disperse people who had been chanting "He is not a terrorist, he is a hero" around the coffin of the last of the men to be buried.

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A survey has since confirmed that three- quarters of Soweto's blacks believe either that the gunmen were "heroes," or at least that they were "brave men desperate to bring about change, though in a way I would not choose."

Only 5.2 percent of the several hundred persons interviewed thought the men were "criminals."

Overall, the blacks thought the whole episode was beneficial. More than 40 percent thought it would "teach whites that the blacks are losing patience." Another 20 percent thought the bank raid publicized black grievances in a dramatic way, and 12.5 percent thought it would actually advance the interests of blacks.

The poll of whites, which was nationwide, indicates that South African voters seem to be backing away from discrimination based solely on race. But they are doing so only relatively slowly, and the english-speaking group more than the majority Afrikaners (who speak Afrikaans). Rich whites, moreover, appear to be moving away from discrimination more than the poor.

Asked if they would be prepared to work under a black boss, provided he was suitably qualified and capable, more than 50 percent of the total interviews said yes, they would -- but only 36.5 percent of the Afrikaners said yes.

And in the most Afrikaans of the country's four provinces, the predominantly agricultural Orange Free State, only 24.2 percent of the whites could see themselves doing so.

However, the very idea of a white working under a black was virtually unthinkable to most whites until recently.

And it was firm government policy to prevent this happening under any circumstances.

More encouraging was the result of a poll question about discriminatory legislation. Three-quarters of the whites polled said they would oppose legislation that discriminated against anybody purely on racial grounds.


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