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South Africa tackles issue of urban blacks

Along the rutted back roads of Soweto, government officials have been making periodic swoops to root out ''squatters,'' dismantling some of the tin shacks that are nearly as common as ''legal'' housing in this huge black township.

At the same time, South Africa's newly convened white Parliament has been listening as government officials explain plans for a new Cabinet committee that will study ways of dealing with the growing political demands of blacks who do not live in the tribal ''homelands.'' One government minister calls this initiative ''epochmaking.''

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The two events help explain why South Africa is so divided over Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's plan for limited political ''power-sharing.''

Although the so-called power-sharing plan would bring only Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians into the government, supporters insist there is a hidden agenda for dealing with blacks. The new Cabinet committee is evidence, they say.

In Soweto, the dismantling of squatter shacks, despite legal moves to stop demolition, drives home an opposite conviction among many blacks that the government has no intention of treating them as full-fledged South African citizens - free to live, work, and move where they like.

Most blacks oppose the power-sharing plan not just because they are excluded from it, but also because they see no sign it will bring fundamental change in their own situation.

Even a few black moderates who are charitable toward the government plan are gloomy overall. A black community leader says that the envisioned multiracial government could theoretically pave the way for inclusion of blacks over the long term. ''But we don't have the time,'' he warns.

The plan for blacks outside the homelands is crucial because it is the weak link in the government's apartheid ideology, most analysts say. Some 10 million blacks have shunned the homelands for more urban areas. They are demanding political power.

Traditional apartheid sees these largely urban blacks as a temporary labor pool for ''white'' South Africa. It envisions that they will eventually go back to their homelands.

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The question of how the government will accommodate mounting black demands lurks behind the debate over power-sharing with Coloreds and Indians, who together are a smaller minority than whites. This hidden issue gives the power-sharing plan a relevance it would not otherwise have.

But does limited power-sharing open new options for dealing with blacks? Or does it limit the options, finally closing off the path to participation in the central government?

Some say the mere fact that the government has been able to couch the debate in terms of a segmented black population - those in the homelands, and those outside - suggests a victory for the apartheid planners. Although many blacks deny any legitimacy to the homelands, the government has helped foster the notion that blacks living in the largely rural homelands are already taken care of in a political sense.

It is difficult to foresee what the new Cabinet committee might recommend regarding non-homeland blacks. The minister in charge of black affairs, Piet Koornhof, created the impression that surprising new approaches could be in the offing.

''To try to wish these people away or to pretend they do not exist amounts to irresponsible and dangerous escapism,'' he has said.

But there is consistently a gap between policy and rhetoric regarding blacks here. And in forming the committee, Prime Minister Botha made clear it would operate within the principles of the National Party.

Such parameters make the committee's work more predictable. A fourth black chamber of Parliament - added to the three envisioned for whites, Coloreds, and Indians - would be ruled out.

What is likely, analysts say, is a move to increase local authority for townships like Soweto to run their own affairs, and perhaps a stronger role for local black officials in regional and metropolitan government.

However, any upgrading of local government rights is not apt to be a prelude to some form of direct representation in the central government. Rather, it appears greater local autonomy will be a substitute.

National Party principles appear to allow black participation in central government only through some indirect link with the homelands. The South African government considers every black person to be a citizen of one of the 10 homelands. As these homelands are pushed into ''independence,'' blacks tied to those territories lose their South African citizenship.

Eventually, the government seeks a confederation of all the homelands and the ''white'' republic. Blacks living in the white republic would exercise political rights through the homeland to which they have been assigned.

Blacks outside the homelands then would have some indirect influence over South Africa to the extent the white republic and the homelands use the confederation to make decisions on matters of ''common concern.''

What a confederation does not imply is a system where national citizenship would be restored to blacks or where whites would surrender any authority over white areas.

The confederal model, critics say, will never be acceptable to blacks outside the homelands because it offers them only indirect influence over national affairs, not real power.

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