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S. Africa's white-owned businesses feel bite of black boycotts

The sign on Benny Goldberg's shopping complex reads: ``World's Largest Liquor Supermarket.'' These days, it also seems among the emptiest. It has fallen victim to an increasingly important tactic in the struggle by this country's black people for political equity: the economic boycott.

The store's size and stock-in-trade have made it a natural entry on the list of ``off limits'' businesses circulated in the impoverished black township of Alexandra last week.

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Since an earlier wave of political violence in 1976, various black leaders have decried liquor consumption as deadening the political senses. And, since white-owned businesses dominate the alcohol retail sector, this issue has been particularly high charged.

But other issues led Alexandra to join the growing roster of black communities that have either initiated or resumed boycotts of white-owned businesses in recent weeks. These include two townships west of Johannesburg, others near Pretoria and near Nelspruit, a hundred miles to the east.

Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean, has also felt renewed sanctions. Last year, a four-month boycott there drove some small shops and businesses into bankruptcy.

The assumption of the boycotters is that, despite their exlusion from national voter rolls, the country's estimated 20 million blacks can exercise market pressure on the white minority.

The alliance of militant youth leaders -- or ``comrades'' -- that announced Alexandra's boycott justified their action by citing police ``detentions and brutalities . . . despite our pleas to the government to abandon them and other inhumane laws.

``They have the arms with which they continue to repress us,'' said the leaflet proclaiming the boycott.

``But we have the buying power.''

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The manager of Goldberg's tends to agree. ``The boycott is a powerful weapon,'' he remarked in his office above the nearly empty aisles of the store early yesterday.

Even in normal times, he said, there were few shoppers on Monday mornings. Much of the store's business also comes from whites in nearby Johannesburg suburbs. But the boycott had greatly ``reduced the percentage of our black customers,'' he continued.

An assistant said bulk orders from informal drinking houses -- or shebeens -- in Alexandra had all but stopped since the boycott. ``It's unreasonable. They're buying through other white outlets, at higher prices. I guess we're just more visible.''

An Alexandra resident said different shops had been included on the boycott list for different reasons. Some, such as a food store on the edge of the township, ``were charging inflated prices. We are poor. We can't afford this.''

``I'm not a comrade, myself. But one of the shops has lowered its prices since the boycott. I say if that happens, then the boycott makes a lot of sense.''

He says at least one white shopkeeper is understood to have paid a $500 fee to the ``comrades'' in return for being taken off the boycott list.

Since the renewed Port Elizabeth boycott, a committee of 20 white business leaders have formed a ``Committee of 20'' advocating that the apartheid system of race segregation be entirely dismantled, and that blacks be given participation in the governmental process of South Africa.

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