The South African government today announced details of its most significant single reform package to date in a white paper outlining legislative plans to abolish the pass law system.
The white paper confirmed the promises of President Pieter W. Botha that many of the most severe direct restrictions on the freedom of movement of blacks in urban areas will be ended.
Theoretically, the proposed legislative reforms will mean that any black South African, excluding citizens of the so-called independent homelands, will be able to work and live in urban areas providing they can find a home in a black neighborhood and a job. Curfews for blacks are also to be abandoned.
The proposal does not provide for any change in the strict segregation of schools, hospitals and residential areas, nor does it give South Africa's 24 million blacks a voice in the government, which is controlled by the 5 million whites. The proposed changes also do not apply to approximately 6 million blacks who live in the four nominally independent tribal homelands -- Transkei, Ciskei, Venda and Bophuthatswana.
The report does not signal any intention to repeal the Group Areas Act defining specific areas where members of the different race groups are allowed to live.
It sidesteps the issue of what will happen to the blacks who are citizens of the homelands, saying the issue, a major source of controversy, will be left to negotiation with the respective homeland governments. Until such negotiations are concluded, the citizens of these territories will not be able to travel freely in South Africa.
The government also introduced today a bill to give the minister of law and order the power to declare "unrest areas" and impose certain restrictions in those areas to combat violence. Helen Suzman of the opposition Progressive Federal Party called the bill an attempt to declare a state of emergency without calling it that.
Despite the changes proposed today, there will be continued control of urbanization through the allocation of housing in the urban areas and the tightening of restrictions on squatting. Residents in urban areas will be required to have permission to occupy an approved accommodation.
But, while these limits on freedom of movement for blacks underline that apartheid is far from being ended, the latest reform package is likely to have a major impact on the lives of about 18 million black South Africans living outside the homelands.
A total of 34 laws and proclamations, some dating back 60 years, are to be repealed under the terms outlined in the white paper. The central piece of legislation that is to be abolished is the Black (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act which contains the well-known Section 10 restrictions on the rights of blacks to be present, for whatever purpose, in specified areas.
It was under this act that tens of thousands blacks were jailed in police swoops on passers-by, commuters and homes, often for the offense of not carrying their "pass books," or identification books detailing where they were allowed to go. There have been recorded instances of black workers being jailed for leaving their pass books in a jacket pocket, yards away from the spot where they were arrested.
The government has suspended prosecutions under the pass laws and has begun releasing those convicted or detained under them. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said about 245 people accused of violating pass laws would be released.
The number of arrests for pass law violations was 132,000 last year, down from 262,000 in 1983, The Associated Press reported. Most convicted offenders served only a few weeks in prison.
The white paper also proposed legislation providing for common identity documents for all race groups.
The identification bill makes no reference to race, although in the document the holder's racial group will be identified by a code. It appears that the new document will not carry information on where the holder may reside. There will be no requirement that it be carried, although everyone will have to identify themselves to an authorized officer "without delay" by either producing it, or other identification documents, or being vouched for by someone else with such identification.
In line with the recent government tendency to tighten its overall control of the population while easing racial restrictions, all South Africans will have to be fingerprinted when applying for the identity document.
The white paper was welcomed by critics of the government. The Institute of Race Relations described it, along with the recognition of black trade unions in 1979, as "the most important reform in South Africa since World War II." The director, John Kane-Berman, describing today's move as a giant step forward, said it was particularly gratifying that the lifting of the pass laws was being carried out on "so comprehensive a basis."
Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, one of the country's best-known black leaders, cautioned blacks to "be aware of the small print" in the government policy statement, The Associated Press reported. "Some form of influx control may be brought in through the back door," he said.
Murphy Morobe, a spokesman for the antiapartheid United Democratic Front coalition, questioned whether the government would desegregate neighborhoods and give blacks a significant political role, AP said.
The leader of the white parliamentary opposition, Colin Eglin, welcomed the package, saying that after months of hesitation the government had "gone the whole way" in scrapping the pass law system.