The South African business community has taken issue with the government in an effort to hasten change, despite warnings from Prime Minister John Vorster that business organization should stop "meddling" in politics.
In a speech this week, Johnnesburg Chamber of Commerce President Ted Smale warned that organized commerce is being forced to introduce changes and get involved in political issues because of the government's slowness in responding to the demands fo blacks.
The speech followed a call Monday by the Chamber, which represents the largest body of businessmen in Johannesburg, to end all discrimination in the city's public facilities.
Traditionally an organization that has avoided political involvement, the Chamber of Commerce made the plea in a strongly worded letter to the Johannesburg City Council. The Chamber said that elimination of the discrimination in services for the races should be a "top priority." The letter mentioned movies theaters, restaurants and recreational facilities. The Cape Town Chamber of Commerce also recently advocated a pledge of non-discrimination in business practices and employment.
Smale went one step farther by declaring that businesses should remove all forms of discrimination and open job opportunities to all races. Such a move would go against government policy which, under the Job Reservation Act, prohibits employment of an African if a white is available for the job.
In the South African context, the Chamber gestures are almost radical, and could lead to a confronation between business and government.
In his speech at the Chamber's annual meeting, Smale said: "If the politicans are unable to provide a business envoirnment in which we can operate, then it is our duty to play an active role in correcting the situation.
"Regrettably, the environment has not improved and while we have done our best as a Chamber, there is little evidence of change."
Smale condemned the prime minister for not fulfilling his pledge, made in a letter to the Associated Chambers of Commerce earlier this year, that the government would support elimination of discrimination in the socio-economic field.
Smale specifically criticized the government's announcement last month that black managers would not be allowed to work in businesses in white areas - a controversial decision widely denounced by businesses, labor leaders and political commentators.
Although businessmen say they are acting on their own initiative, their actions come at a time of increasing pressure on South African commerce and industry.
Earlier this year a few of the more than 350 American companies with branches in South Africa issued a statement of principle aimed at bettering the situation of the black labor force of five million. It included equal pay for equal work, equal advancement opportunities, elimination of all segregated facilities and active training programs to prepare blacks for advancement.
The Chamber is not the first group of South Africa businessmen to push leaders, representing companies with almost 60 per cent of the business assets and employing more than half the country's labour force, formed the Urban Foundation.
In its statement of principles, the foundation said: "There growing feeling of crisis (in South Africa) has surely reached the stage where private enterprise must re-examine its role in society and question to what extent the scope of its activities should be extended ... Business interests must ask themselves, more than ever before, to what extend their particular areas of expertise can be put to use to improve effectively the environment and opportunities of the black population.
The foundation, which has raised more than $6 million in donations from business, has listed its priorities as black housing, education, recreational facilities and the black labor situation.
One of the major goals is to help blacks buy homes. In one of its few moves for change, the government announced last year that it supported a program to achieve this, but so far progress has been slow because Africans are not allowed to own land and thus have no security to put up against mortgages.
Another of the immediate goals is to clear the garbage that has collected in Soweto, the black township adjoining Johannesburg and the major site of unrest over the last year. Most of the municipality's trucks were damaged in riots and tons of garbage have been left in the streets.
A third major project is a series of courses for senior black students, whose hopes at attending college were dealt a blow by the closure of schools during riots.
South African businesses feel additional pressure from the loss of confidence of foreign investors and lending institutions after 14 months of racial disorders.
The recent gestures of the business community may be a response to reaction abroad. In his speech, Smale said that a restoration of business confidence in South Africa is vital if an economic crisis is to be prevented.
Another factor may have been the visit in May by Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who came here as a guest of mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer specifically to speak to a group of prominent white businessmen.
In an emotional appeal, Young stressed the importance of the role of commerce in leading the way toward change by bettering the working and social conditions for African employees - and bringing blacks into the capitalist system to the extent that they do not want to see it destroyed by violence.
Some editorials here have predicted that the business community's response to pressure could play an important part in pushing the defiant government into changes it has not planned.