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Nonviolent protest earns reprieve for S. African black shantytown

Despite the bitter and sometimes violent dissent currently rippling over South Africa, there remains at least one tangible proof that peaceful protest sometimes can bring about change in this racially divided country.

It is a sprawling black community of corrugated-metal huts outside Cape Town, called Crossroads.

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Just over a year ago, this shantytown -- home to some 23,000 persons -- made international headlines when the South African government threatened to bulldoze it to the ground. The reason? Many of the black residents of Crossroads did not have official government permission to live in the area.

But intense domestic and international protest sparked a startling turnabout, and the government agreed to move the people of Crossroads to a new, permanent township to be built nearby.

That was in April 1979. But a year later, a number of questions still hang over the future of Crossroads. Nevertheless, most analysts say the continued existence of Crossroads is itself proof that, under certain circumstances, nonviolent protest, can force limited changes in apartheid -- South Africa's complex system of racial segregation.

That is not to say the changes are farreaching, however. Last year the government promised the new township would have 2,575 home sites. By this May, the number had been scaled back to 1,662, prompting still unresolved questions about whether all Crossroads residents would be accommodated.

The government also promised to allow residents of Crossroads to stay in the area, since some 80 percent of the heads of households held jobs. Nevertheless, there was an unseccessful attempt last year to send some 2,400 families to Transkei, an underdeveloped tribal area the South African government insists is an independent country.

Questions remain, too, over the legal status of Crossroads dwellers. It is unclear just what sort of legal rights they will be granted in Cape Province, traditionally a redoubt for whites and Coloreds (people of mixed race). The Cape is officially a "Colored labor preference area," and the government has sought to keep black laborers out of the region.

But the establishment of the new township is a tacit admission that the policy has failed. Some estimates are that there are up to 100,000 black people "illegally" in the Cape area, many of them in jobs vital to the economy.

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There are concerns, too, about the cost of housing in the new township. The cheapest house in the new development is expected to rent for $31.

But Alexandria Luke -- known as "Mama Luke" in Crossroads -- says that selling vegetables by the roadside barely allows her to raise the $9 monthly rental on the land under her modest domicile in Crossroads.

"Even now," she says, "Mama Luke is having trouble. now where am I going to get the money to pay rent?"

Besides, a move to a new house would mean demolition of her four-room wooden home which has linoleum floors and bright brown-and-yellow floral wallpaper and cost nearly $600 to build.

"And now they are going to bulldoze it," she says disapprovingly, adding that she would "rather stay here."

Indeed, a number of Crossroads dwellers prefer to stay in their community, complete with barber shops, churches, stores, and bus depots, housed in an assortment of shanties.

In fact, some observers predict that, given the housing backlog in the Cape area -- estimated to number into tens of thousands of units -- and the viability of Crossroads as a community, the government eventually may allow it to remain standing.

Much will depend on the attitude of Minister of Cooperation and Development Pieter Koornhof. One person deeply involved in negotiations over Crossroads' future says Dr. Koornhof's "obvious good intentions" must be tempered by resistance from Cape Province whites, who see the Cape as "the last stand for whites."

Another person closely involved in the Crossroads issue says that it has proven that peaceful protest can, in some limited circumstances, change government action, but falls far short of "bringing down apartheid."

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