The South African government has suspended the forced removal of about 50 black communities, involving about 500,000 people, pending a review of its population resettlement program, Gerrit N. Viljoen, the minister in charge of black affairs, announced today.
Viljoen said the reprieve, which includes the farming community of Mathopestad visited by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) last month and others spotlighted in the American press, was partly the result of foreign criticism "which has certainly affected our thinking."
However, Viljoen cautioned that the suspension did not mean an end to forced removals. Some communities might still be resettled if the government felt it necessary, he said, adding that in these cases it would try to do so by negotiation with community leaders.
He also said the removal of communities categorized as "squatters" would continue. This is a definition usually applied to blacks who have built shantytowns on land reserved for white occupation under the government's segregationist system of apartheid.
Viljoen's announcement of the suspension of removal of the 50 communities -- most on land bought before a 1913 law prohibiting blacks from owning land outside the 13 percent of the country demarcated as tribal "homelands" -- was welcomed by civil rights organizations. They criticized the decision to continue removing the "squatters," however.
Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash, a women's organization that has done much to expose the hardships caused by the resettlement policy, said tonight: "I wholeheartedly welcome the announcement, and I hope that never again will our country be sullied by the forced removal of people from where they want to be to any other place."
But Duncan added that she hoped Viljoen would apply a different definition of "squatters" from the one used by officials of his department. "Otherwise many thousands of black people are still going to be dispossessed," she said.
Viljoen made his announcement at a briefing for foreign correspondents in which he expanded on a cautious announcement of intended changes by President Pieter W. Botha Jan. 25, but his own explanations were also cautious and, like Botha's, did not contain any firm pledges.
When asked for more precise details the minister also appeared ambiguous at times, and afterward correspondents were confused by some of his remarks.
For example, he said the government would try to negotiate agreement with community leaders before resettling and then, in response to a question, said he regarded the removal of Mogopa village last year -- when armed police threw a cordon around the little community in the middle of the night, declared it an "operational area" and forced the villagers into trucks -- as a "negotiated removal."
This was because officials had negotiated with a man the government recognized as the community's leader, Viljoen said.
In a rare admission that the government is responsive to outside pressures, Viljoen said it had decided to reassess the resettlement program partly because "public opinion has become very critical of the policy, and that includes supporters of the governing party."
Asked whether this included foreign critics "like Sen. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher," Viljoen replied: "It has certainly affected our thinking.
"We are influenced by things which affect our foreign relations, although when we consider something is necessary in the interests of the country, then we go ahead with it," he said.