South Africa The "Graying" of a Nation

  • Shortly after African National Congress Leader Govan Mbeki was set free this month, a group of his supporters held a rally at Johannesburg's Khotso House, headquarters of a dozen antiapartheid groups. Only a year earlier, white occupants of an apartment house across the street had caused a minor riot at the same spot by tossing flowerpots and other missiles onto the crowd from their balconies. This time curious residents again peered from their balconies, but no one down below thought of ducking. Even though the apartment building is restricted by law to whites only, most of the onlookers were black.

    With gathering speed, yet another of apartheid's pillars -- the mandatory residential separation of the races -- is crumbling. Especially in Johannesburg but also in other large cities, neighborhoods that were once entirely white are seeing a steady influx of ethnic Asians, "coloreds" (people of mixed race), and, most surprisingly, blacks. The migration to these so-called gray areas is taking place in violation of the Group Areas Act, which completed the process of assigning every square foot of South Africa to residential use by one of the four racial groups and, when passed in 1950, was hailed by Prime Minister Daniel F. Malan as the "essence of apartheid." Though the present government of State President P.W. Botha insists that the law remain on the books, authorities do virtually nothing to enforce it.

    The unraveling of the Group Areas Act began in 1982, when the Transvaal supreme court ruled that an Indian found to be in violation of the law could not be evicted from her home unless authorities could prove the "availability of alternative accommodation." That was -- and still is -- an impossible task. Severe overcrowding plagues most nonwhite areas, which contain 73% of the country's total population but cover only 13% of its land. In the black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, for example, the typical four-room "shoe box" home is occupied by an average of 16 people.

    As increasing numbers of whites moved to the suburbs, urban areas were saddled with a glut of housing that, by law, could be sold or rented only to other whites. As recently as last year, this white flight had left at least one apartment out of four in central Johannesburg unoccupied, and surplus housing nationwide reached a total of 37,000 units. Market forces gradually overcame legal ones, and whites began renting to nonwhites, often with the assistance of real estate agents who specialize in "C.I.A. listings," a coy abbreviation for "colored, Indian and African." In Johannesburg the largest concentrations of nonwhites have settled in the downtown business area and a midtown neighborhood called Hillbrow, which now has a 40% black population of about 35,000. "What is happening in Johannesburg is not an issue of political defiance but a case of necessity," says Tony Leon, a city councilor who represents a gray section of Hillbrow. "These people have nowhere else to go."

    In Cape Town the largest gray area is Woodstock, a neatly tended neighborhood of stucco houses situated on the slopes of Table Mountain. In contrast to Hillbrow, which was formerly all white, Woodstock has always been home to a sizable colored population, most of whom speak the same Afrikaans language as local whites and belong to Dutch Reformed churches -- though not the same ones as local whites. The recent infusion of Asians and blacks into this existing mixture prompted the government to announce plans to rezone it as a "colored area," a step that would have forced white residents to move out. An interracial grass-roots campaign was organized to fight the proposed rezoning, and at least for the time being, has succeeded. Says an elated Peter Parkin, a city councilman and head of the Open Woodstock campaign: "The first nail is being driven into the coffin of residential segregation in South Africa."

    Inevitably some white residents of neighborhoods in transition, especially those populated by working-class families, extend something less than a hearty welcome to those who cross the color line. A scribbled message on a shopping center wall in Yeoville, a blue-collar Johannesburg neighborhood, sums up the animosity: INTEGRATION STINKS. In Bertrams, another working-class neighborhood of Johannesburg, a white woman who lives on a street whose residents are mostly black, colored or Indian, voices a typical complaint. "If they lived one family to a flat, it wouldn't be so bad," she says. "But there are so many that now I can't sit outside."

    What is surprising, however, is that more often than not the graying of South Africa has been accomplished peacefully, if not always amicably. A national poll of white South Africans conducted early this year found that 52% regarded gray areas as acceptable, while 46% thought they should not be permitted. Increasingly, white South Africans find that they have little choice but to face reality. "Hillbrow is already a multiracial area, and no one is going to change that," says Leon de Beer, who represents the community in Parliament. "You can't unscramble a scrambled egg."

    The government has announced it will propose an amendment to the Group Areas Act that would permit some communities to open their residential areas to more than one race. Liberal critics of that plan claim it is unnecessarily cumbersome and call instead for consigning the entire act to the same scrap heap used for such now discarded remnants of apartheid as the ban on interracial marriage and the infamous pass laws, which required blacks to carry documents stipulating where they could live and work. The government insists that no such drastic move is called for, and promises that communities wanting to remain segregated will be allowed to do so. But John Kane-Berman, executive director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, strongly disagrees. "It is clear that the government is compelled by the right mix of pressure and action to shift its bottom line continuously," he says. "The next domino to fall is the Group Areas Act."