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S. Africa putting lid on unrest?

As police for the most part gained control over the troubled townships near Johannesburg on Wednesday, some analysts warned that the government was only putting a lid on a situation that remains potentially explosive both in those communities and elsewhere.

These analysts say black discontent is pervasive and primed to erupt around a number of issues. They also believe there are things the government can do to defuse the situation - such as opening a better dialogue between the government and blacks. At the moment blacks see the government exploring false solutions.

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In the five townships south of Johannesburg where unrest erupted early in the week, the death toll has been put at 29. There was also much property damage.

In other demonstrations of black rebellion, South Africa has been hit by two sabotage bombings this week. The bombings are believed to be the work of the outlawed African National Congress.

Some analysts see some parallels between the mood of blacks now and the mood before the Soweto uprising of 1976.

They suggest that the government could begin to defuse current tensions by addressing three major issues:

* The broad question of political rights for blacks.

The nation's new Constitution - which gives Indians and Coloreds a role in government, while continuing to exclude blacks - is humiliating, many blacks say.

Blacks want political rights, but short of that a signal that the government views this issue seriously would be seen as a ''beginning,'' some prominent blacks say.

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''You see (the government) dictating to you and excluding you. Of course it angers blacks,'' says Mokgethi Motlhabi, a black who has written a new book on black resistance in South Africa.

* The economic plight of blacks. Some blacks feel a total reordering of financial priorities is needed, with far more resources going to the black majority and less to the privileged white community.

* Education. Black enrollments have sharply increased and a number of new schools have been built since 1976. But some analysts say the quality of education is actually worse than in 1976.

Most important, the government must move away from its policy of racially segregated education, many blacks say.

''Separate education makes blacks feel inferior,'' says Mr. Motlhabi. He feels that unless separate education is dismantled, black student unrest will persist.

President Pieter Botha circled around the issue of political rights for blacks when he said recently: ''For the urban black we have to find a solution.''

Government thinking is along the lines of granting some form of political representation to the 10 million blacks living in the ''white'' urban areas. Whites consider this highly progressive compared to the old idea that all blacks belonged in the ''homelands.''

But many blacks categorically reject this. It presupposes that the 11 million blacks living in the tribal homelands have been taken care of.

''We don't need to talk about urban blacks. We need to talk about blacks in general,'' says Motlhabi.

The economic problems being felt by many blacks are not solely a result of the recession, analysts point out. Last year the government passed a law that gave black townships more political autonomy. But at the same time it shifted more of the financial responsibility of running the townships onto the black local governing bodies.

Black city councilors are seen as ''stooges'' by many blacks. Their position has become even more dangerous now that they must implement unpopular economic measures, such as rent increases. During this week's unrest, three councilors were apparently killed by blacks, including the deputy mayor of Sharpeville, Sam Dlamini.

In comparing unrest this week with that in 1976, David Webster, a social anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes that today, as eight years ago, there is a severe recession, general dissatisfaction among blacks with the segregated education system, and a process of ''political conscientizing'' among blacks.

Mr. Webster does research work in Soweto and says he feels a ''simmering discontentment'' among blacks and a ''despair'' at the unavailability of jobs for young school graduates.

The difference between current black unrest and the Soweto uprising, he asserts, is that current disturbances are sporadic and less unified than those of '76. But he says that in aggregate the situation may be worse now in some respects. He says, for instance, that more black schoolchildren have boycotted schools at one time or another over the past nine months than during the '76 Soweto uprising.

It is also widely accepted here that the police are more effective now than they were in 1976 in quelling unrest.

This week's unrest south of Johannesburg was preceded by protests over economic and educational issues in a number of townships in recent months.

Motlhabi says the issues in each case are important. But often they serve as triggers for deeper-seated discontent with the government's policy of apartheid.

''These issues simply provide the occasion for the explosion of accumulated tension,'' Motlhabi claims.

The immediate apparent cause of the unrest earlier this week was dissatisfaction over a rent increase scheduled to take effect Sept. 12.

But it was lost on no one that the unrest coincided with the introduction of the new Constitution.

Webster says the devastating effect South Africa's three-year-old recession is having on blacks was first signaled last month in the township of Tumahole, also south of Johannesburg. That township erupted in rioting after blacks marched to protest a rent increase and an increase in the general sales tax.

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