The South African government tomorrow (Dec. 4) defies international and internal criticism by granting local independence to Ciskei, a small black enclave in its southeast corner. Ciskei is the fourth homeland to be separated in this manner from the body of South Africa. None of its predecessors (Transkei , Bophuthatswana, and Venda) has received any measure of international recognition, although South Africa attempts formally to treat each as if it were in fact a sovereign entity.
Chief Minister Lennox Sebe of Ciskei agreed to accept local independence despite the decidedly unfavorable response of a careful public opinion poll and the unanimous opposition of an Anglo-American-South African commission established by his own government. In rejecting independence, the commission said that ''South Africa is changing: this is not the time to risk (Ciskei) cutting itself off from the prospect of gaining its rightful share of political and economic benefits within South Africa.''
When South Africa began giving local independence to its 10 homelands in 1976 , it thought that it could persuade its own 22 million blacks (and the world) that a measure of autonomy in their own small states (which together comprise but 13 percent of the total land mass of the country) would provide a suitable substitute for the right to vote in South Africa itself. But only a handful of African politicians have agreed. The leaders of the six still dependent homelands, led by Chief Minister Gatsha Buthelezi of KwaZulu, fear the loss of the official South African connection. They say that the pretense of home rule cannot compensate for the loss of a stake in the future of the larger, wealthy South Africa. Urban African leaders are even more vehement, deriding homelands as a way of fracturing the unity of black nationalism.
Ciskei is tiny. It encompasses two fragments of land and several other smaller parcels extending inland from the environs of East London, a white-dominated city on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast. Ciskei's total land area is about 2,000 square miles, slightly more than the total size of Delaware. A further 1,000 square miles, to be excised from white-owned South Africa, has been promised.
The government of South Africa assigns people to homelands on the basis of language and culture even if they have never lived in the homelands or had any historical connection with them. In Ciskei's case, only about 700,000 of its nominal total population of 2,100,000 actually reside in the homeland. At least a third of the 700,000 live in Mdantsane, Ciskei's largest city, a dormitory for commuters to East London. Among the remainder are recent deportees from South Africa, many having been forcibly removed from white-controlled cities, from squatter camps, or from white-owned farms. They now live in dusty resettlement towns along the borders of Ciskei.
The commission reported that the Ciskei lacked ''all the attributes of a viable economy,'' adding: ''It cannot grow sufficient food, not even the basic carbohydrates, to feed its population. It cannot provide employment for its resident population.'' Moreover, the Ciskei has no port and only modest potential for agricultural and industrial growth. It has no proven mineral resources. Like the other homelands, Ciskei also remains dependent on South African parliamentary approval for at least 80 percent of its total annual budget.
Local independence is not expected to make Ciskei less of an impoverished, overgrazed, densely populated rural backwater with a single urban conglomeration. Many urban Ciskeians worry that the coming of independence could accentuate the depths of rural poverty and extend the impact of existing levels of malnourishment. They fear being cut off from the medical and social services of South Africa and wonder, too, how their schools will fare.
Ciskei has also been subject to single-minded local rule. Chief Sebe and his party dominate the political arena, having since 1977 overcome or ousted all internal opposition. In recent months his government has arrested trade union leaders and journalists, holding many for months without trial. After independence Ciskei will doubtless continue to be ruled arbitrarily and toughly.
Given the experience of its three predecessors on the path of local independence, it is doubtful that Ciskei will become any less dependent than before on South Africa. The bulk of its people will still have to be employed there. Capital for improvements and maintenance will have to be found there. Many black South Africans continue to wonder whether the artifice of local independence can compensate for a homeland's separation from the emerging and changing political and economic complexity of the greater South Africa.