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Hillbrow: testing ground for reform in South Africa. Area of Johannesburg debates continuing illegal integration

For a few hours, it seemed that whites living on the northern edge of South Africa's main city were determined to scrap apartheid once and for all. Then came the backlash -- a slew of phone calls to a neighborhood newspaper insisting that residential race segregation must continue.

The debate -- over whether the town should try to legalize its tacit integration -- rages in Hillbrow, a Greenwich Village-like area a few miles from downtown Johannesburg. The neighborhood has become an unofficial testing ground for President Pieter W. Botha's strategy for gradual reform of apartheid.

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Last month, the locally published Hillbrow Herald felt it was time to test the winds for change. The paper asked 500 white residents whether the Group Areas Act, which bars nonwhites from living in urban neighborhoods and suburbs throughout the country, should formally be removed. With a banner headline -- ``Free the `Brow' '' -- it announced that nearly 70 percent had said yes. An equal number felt Hillbrow should be a reform pace-setter for the nation.

Nearly 80 percent added that they felt property values had dropped in two years of ``illegal'' integration and that tenants should be compensated financially.

Then the phone started ringing.

Within hours, the newspaper was deluged with phone calls. Detailed in a follow-up edition under the banner headline ``Backlash,'' the protests charged that the poll had been misleading.

Most callers, says publisher Peter Rose, stressed that they were not ``racists.'' They alleged that even ``illegal'' integration had brought with it overcrowding, plummeting real-estate values, and prostitution. Hillbrow, said one typical caller, was no longer a ``nice suburb.''

Other callers were harsher. One suggested that the Herald's staff ``and the rest of the bleeding-heart liberals'' decamp to Soweto.

Another complained: ``You should come to my building . . . and hear what the rest of the residents say about the buildings around us that are full of blacks, Coloreds, prostitutes, and other rubbish.''

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The intensity of the debate over whether Hillbrow residents should press for a local exemption from Group Areas restrictions may help explain President Botha's reluctance to scuttle this legislative pillar of apartheid. He has said that various other segregation statutes can go. He drove home the point last Friday, when he announced the end of ``pass laws'' regulating rural blacks' access to townships near the main white cities.

Black leaders reject such changes as too little, too late. The white right wing rejects them as too much, too soon. In a sign of Botha's concern over possible anti-reform backlash among his constituents, he has extended this year's parliamentary season by calling a special sitting for mid-August. This will accommodate a scheduled congress of his National Party earlier that month.

Hillbrow, represented in the all-white Parliament by the liberal opposition Progressive Federal Party, is among the least likely arenas for backlash.

Over the past two years the neighborhood has gone as far toward racial integration as any in South Africa. Dozens of nonwhite families, with the cooperation of landlords and a tacit OK from the police, have broken Group Areas rules by moving into Hillbrow apartments. Most are either Indians or ``Coloreds'' (people of mixed race). In keeping with Botha's drive to end ``petty'' aspects of apartheid, Hillbrow has opened parks, restaurants, discos, and movie theaters to all races.

There has been no major race violence. Yet in the past year or so, many whites have moved out to leafy suburbs further north.

The publisher of the Herald says that a number of government offices have since called with requests for the poll data. Still, he doubts that there will be any policy response for at least several months. ``The government won't do anything until after the party congress in August,'' he figures. ``They're scared of the right wing.''

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