Conservative bid to strengthen apartheid shakes South African town. When the opposition party won the majority of town elections in Tansvaal Province last October, it set about reviving racial segregation of public facilities. In Boksburg, blacks have responded with a boycott of white-owned shops, driving many out of business.
Boksburg, South Africa
This dingy mining town is in a mess. Its ultra-rightwing town council is reviving strict segregationist laws. Blacks, in protest, are boycotting shops. Businesses are going belly up. And the whole world, it seems, is closing in to condemn the place.
What's happening here is exactly what the Conservative Party promised during last October's municipal elections. Running on a platform of a return to old-style apartheid, Conservatives took a majority of town councils in Transvaal Province. True to their word, they've since set about dusting off decaying ``whites only'' signs and enforcing racial segregation of public facilities.
While all this is abhorrent to numerous South Africans, many political analysts find the National Party government's outburst of righteous indignation rather insincere. For starters, the Nationals themselves passed the law some 30 years ago that allows for separate - and unequal - facilities for different races.
And although the government talks a lot about abolishing petty apartheid, the law is still on the books. It has been relaxed in many places. But buses, trains, swimming pools, and the like largely remain segregated, as do most rural communities.
The Nationals ``take the signs down, but still practice apartheid,'' says Mark Swilling, of the Center for Policy Studies. ``The Conservatives just put the signs back up.''
Then there is the black boycott. The government has allowed wide-spread coverage of it in the country's strictly censored newspapers and television news programs - somewhat confusing, considering that boycotts are illegal under the 30-month-old state of emergency. Black leaders in eastern Cape Province were put behind bars, in fact, for leading a successful consumer boycott against white shops during the 1984-86 uprising that swept the country.
The conclusion: while boycotts aimed at bringing the Nationalist-led government to its knees are illegal, those directed at opposition Conservatives aren't so bad, analysts say.
``To describe the government as hypocritical is too mild,'' contends David Welsh, a University of Cape Town political scientist. ``The Conservative Party has called their bluff in a most embarrassing way.''
At this point it's unclear exactly what the government intends to do. Constitutional Planning and Development Minister Chris Heunis has condemned the moves, calling them ``a recipe for conflict.'' He also has threatened to change legislation to curb local government but without giving any specifics.
In the meantime, the uproar continues. This, despite the fact that the number of cities actually affected is pretty small. The Conservatives took about 55 percent of all Transvaal municipalities in the October election. Of those, some 80 percent are rural - where segregation still reigns, explains Richard Humphries, of the Center for Policy Studies. The remaining 20 percent translates into about six or seven towns.
There, Conservatives have flirted with reimposing curfews on blacks at night and closing business districts to black-owned concerns. But those moves are illegal, Mr. Humphries says - which leaves the resegregation of public facilities as just about the only action they can take.
And that's what they did in this town set amid huge mounds of mining slag about 45 minutes from Johannesburg. ``We did it because we're entitled to,'' insists Beyers de Klerk, a mountain of a man who is the mayor here. ``These are the government's laws.''
The response was swift: blacks and coloreds (people of mixed race) who live in nearby townships simply stopped shopping here earlier this month. Economists figure the country's 28 million blacks account for more than half of all consumer spending. Thus, the effect on business has been devastating.
Consider Boksburg's main shopping drag on a recent Saturday morning. The nine checkout counters of a department store are lifeless. A few cashiers paint their nails; others stare disconsolately out at the street. At a nearby electronics shop, the owner says business is so slow he had to fire two of 14 salesmen. And down at the Jardin des Fleurs florist, cash sales have plunged by 70 percent. (Despite a hand-written sign on the window that declares ``All Human Beings Welcomed.'')
As a result, folks here clearly are perturbed. Some multinational companies are threatening to move to neighboring Benoni and Germiston (where business is booming because of the Boksburg boycott.) A group of businessmen and other concerned citizens have formed the Boksburg Alliance to pressure the town council into reversing its actions.
And in what is seen as a backlash, independent candidate Issy Kramer - running on an ``anti-racist'' platform - trounced his Conservative counterpart in a municipal by-election held a few weeks ago. For the Nationals, the result proves what they've been saying ever since the 1987 general election. (That's when Conservatives shocked the government by capturing enough Parliamentary seats to become the official opposition.)
The Conservatives' recipe of returning to old-style apartheid may sound good to some, the Nationals contend, but just let them get into power and try to rule. Says Chris Smith, National leader on Boksburg's town council: Conservatives have shown whites what would happen if they took over the country.
So the Nationals think this all could boomerang against the Conservatives - thereby strengthening their hand. Others, however, see it differently. At a table on Commissioner Street, a woman in a blue blazer is trying to get people to sign a petition that calls for an end to all racial discrimination.
She's a member of the Boksburg Alliance and the Black Sash, a liberal anti-apartheid group - ``but if all the reactionary people around here knew that, I'd be run out of town.'' She believes the Boksburg fiasco will force the government to clearly draw the line between its policies and those of the Conservatives. And that means the Nationals are going to have to make good their promises of reform.
``Maybe, just maybe, this will make the government get rid of separate amenities once and for all,'' she says, watching an elderly woman scrawl her signature on the petition. ``Maybe.''