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Black Rent Boycott Fulfills Purpose

South African officials and anti-apartheid leaders negotiate, opening door to broader talks

SOUTH African authorities and anti-apartheid leaders gave a boost to interracial dialogue this week by agreeing to negotiate an end to a black township's three-year rent boycott. The agreement in principle to write off nearly $100 million in rent arrears marks a radical departure by Pretoria from its repressive response to rent boycotts, which have played a central role in black resistance since the government imposed a state of emergency in 1986.

Monday's meeting between a government delegation led by the administrator of Transvaal Province and the Soweto Peoples' Delegation (SPD) - a group of prominent anti-apartheid leaders led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu - bestowed a new status of official legitimacy on popular black leaders and signaled a notable shift in anti-apartheid strategy.

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It marks a move away from the politics of resistance toward a policy of selective participation and collective bargaining - similar to that used by black trade unions to win power at the grass-roots level.

It also represents a defeat for security hawks in the government who have dominated government decisionmaking through a complex web of grass-roots committees headed by military, police, and intelligence officers which seeks to promote ``moderate'' blacks at the expense of black ``radicals.'' Local township councilmen, whose responsibilities include rent collection, have often been accused of being collaborators.

The accord follows nearly a year of intense behind-the-scenes dialogue between anti-apartheid leaders and officials of the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom), the massive para-statal corporation which provides electricity to South Africa and several black-ruled neighboring states. Electricity is a major portion of the service charge paid under the rent umbrella.

Escom has been exploring formation of a private company to supply electricity to Soweto - with activists representing the community in decisionmaking. This process effectively by-passed the township's black councilmen and helped set the scene for this week's agreement.

``Escom officials have been the movers and shakers behind the scenes and have twisted the arm of the authorities to negotiate with anti-apartheid leaders,'' says a source close to the talks who asked not to be named.

A settlement of the boycott could hasten the advent of inter-racial dialogue on other national issues. ``If one is talking about creating a climate for negotiation politics, this could be immensely significant,'' says policy researcher Steven Friedman of the independent South African Institute of Race Relations.

``What this amounts to is the state recognizing a section of organized black power which operates outside the system,'' he says.

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It was protests against rent increases in black townships like Sharpeville and Sebokeng - in the industrial heartland south of Johannesburg - which sparked a nationwide black rebellion in September 1984. Hundreds of councilmen and policemen were killed in black-on-black violence.

Rent boycotts have since been sustained in many black townships despite the harsh repression under emergency rule - which has included forced evictions, mass detentions, and bannings.

But last year the boycott in Soweto - a sprawling black residential network of some 2.5 million - reached a deadlock. The first moves toward a resolution were made following local council elections in October. A new wave of black councilmen swept to power on promises that they would pressure the government on the rent issue.

In the first shift toward participation politics, anti-apartheid leaders struck a deal with the new councilmen, but then the leaders gradually wrested the initiative away from the councilmen.

Planact, a multidisciplinary service organization that advises anti-apartheid groups on housing and urban development issues, made five recommendations which formed the basis of the SPD proposals Monday.

They are that arrears should be written off, ownership of rented homes be transferred to tenants, Soweto's infra-structure be upgraded, an affordable service charge on rented homes be established, and a single tax base be created for Johannesburg and Soweto.

Soweto residents argue that as workers and consumers they make a major contribution to the welfare of Johannesburg, yet services for Soweto are neglected. Many effectively have paid for their homes several times in decades of rent payments.

The Urban Foundation, which promotes changes in housing and education with corporate support, announced yesterday a South African business-led venture which will make available $350 million in low-income home loans for blacks, providing 40,000 new homes for an estimated 250,000 people.

The initiative, described by the Foundation as a major breakthrough, has drawn sponsorship from the governments of Britain, West Germany, and Switzerland, and international business interests in Britain, the United States, and Japan.

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