Johannesburg -- The South African government, having forced blacks out of their ancestral lands, is now putting them up in homes that lack even such rudimentary facilities as indoor plumbing.
Not only are there some 20,000 existing government-built homes without indoor toilets, but another 2,900 new homes now being planned also will lack plumbing facilities, officials said.
If you've been reading the papers this week, you know how wildly inaccurate this report is. The numbers are accurate enough, but the dateline should read Washington, not Johannesburg; the residents of the housing in question are not native South Africans but Native Americans, and the government agency involved is not the Ministry of Bantu Affairs but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
I only said it was South Africa because it's the easiest way to generate the appropriate degree of outrage.
When it happens in South Africa, we know without doubt that the reason is racial. When it happens here, we find it reasonable to blame it on "budget constraints."
It was "budget constraints," said Robert Graham, head of the agency that oversees the Indian Health Service, that led his Public Health Service administrator to delete the $24 million requested for bathrooms in the proposed new homes and $30 million to upgrade 20,000 existing homes.
"This committee worries about the well-being of the Indian community," said Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), who chaired the Tuesday hearing, after being told by one government witness that the absence of sanitation facilities can lead to gastrointestinal and other health problems. "What choice does the committee have but to put that money (back) in?"
Sadly, the sorry state of Indian housing does not even rise to the level of serious public controversy. Americans -- including those who are moved to protest the latest outrage in South Africa -- seem to accept it as a matter of course that the welfare of Native Americans is a low priority. Indeed, most of us hardly think of them at all, hidden, as they are, from the public view.
No one seriously suggests these days that America's non-native "newcomers" ought to go home and give the country back to the Indians. But it doesn't seem extravagant to suggest that their government-furnished housing ought to include at least the basic amenities that the rest of us take for granted. Indoor toilets hardly constitute a luxury these days.
Robert Graham chose not to argue the point this week, noting only that "under the present budget priorities, it is not posible to seek funds for these purposes."
Nor did he elaborate on the "pres budget priorities," but it may be worth noting that the hearings were held on the same day that the House voted to release $1.5 billion for 21 MX missiles, those weapons so dear to the heart of the Reagan administration, despite the fact that nobody knows what to do with them.
At least the Indians know what to do with bathrooms.