CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A legislative commission Thursday recommended the gradual and voluntary integration of South Africa's residential areas through a major liberalization of the nation's system of racial separation.
The constitutional affairs committee of the President's Council, a legislative and advisory body, proposed that local governments be allowed to decide whether a neighborhood should be integrated. But it added that those suburbs wishing to remain racially segregated must be allowed to do so.
Although the changes would initially benefit mostly those blacks with enough money to buy houses in well-to-do white suburbs willing to accept black residents, government officials said they believe the proposed changes constitute an important breakthrough for President Pieter W. Botha's step-by-step approach to political, economic and social reforms.
As the number of integrated neighborhoods slowly increases, the committee envisions a growing number of integrated schools and probably the first non-racial elections for integrated municipal councils.
No Large-Scale Change
But there would be no immediate or large-scale move away from the system that keeps most of the country's urban blacks in crowded and impoverished townships that for many people sum up the results of minority white rule and that make full repeal of the Group Areas Act a major demand of the anti-apartheid movement.
"The government realizes that it cannot continue to rule with old-style apartheid, so it is making minor adjustments," said Azhar Cachalia, treasurer of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 750 anti-apartheid groups. "This falls well short of any real, fundamental change."
The President's Council committee also urged the repeal of a 1953 apartheid law segregating most public facilities, although it stressed that this was not a call for "forced integration," particularly of privately owned amenities.
And it recommended the immediate opening of all areas zoned for commercial, industrial, professional and other non-residential uses to blacks, a move largely intended to permit them to compete equally with whites in the retail market. It similarly urged that black farmers be allowed to buy agricultural land in some areas that have been reserved for whites for more than 70 years.
Botha Repeats Stand
Although the government is expected to accept the committee's major recommendations and to introduce legislation implementing them next year, President Botha reiterated his commitment to the concept of "group rights" to protect the white minority and to continued segregation in housing, schools and some facilities to preserve group identity.
"The government stands by the principle that opportunities to form one's own community, to have one's own community life and to possess one's own areas must be guaranteed to those who regard this as being important," Botha said in a statement. "The established rights of the individual and of communities must also be protected."
But Botha, in a shift away from his past insistence on group rights as the cornerstone of South African politics, said that it must be possible as well "to make provision for those who prefer a different life style."
He warned, however, that the recommendations "should not be regarded as a green light to act in contravention of the existing laws" while the government studies the report and prepares legislation to implement it.
Warns on Sudden Shift
Andries J. G. Oosthuizen, the committee chairman and a member of Botha's National Party, said at a press conference that if the Group Areas Act were repealed entirely and immediately, South Africa could be faced with serious friction and possibly violence between blacks and whites, particularly politically conservative, low-income whites.
"There are very strong feelings in the white community that they could be overwhelmed by people from another (racial) group moving into their areas so that the character of the area could be dramatically changed," Oosthuizen said.
"You need to have an appreciation for a historic situation that has developed over the centuries. If you totally uproot the existing system, you will just be looking for insecurity and trouble. We are looking for an evolutionary approach."
Despite the limited nature of the proposed liberalization and the government's firm commitment to group rights, the proposals are certain to meet strong opposition from the Conservative Party when they are debated in the President's Council and later this month in Parliament.
The Conservative Party's Jan Hoon told the council that stricter enforcement of the present law is needed, not its relaxation, "so that every person knows where he belongs."
Want Faster Change
The recommendations are also drawing severe criticism from the left on grounds that the Group Areas Act, enacted in 1950 under the Nationalists but based on a century of earlier legislation, should be repealed immediately, not amended, and that apartheid must be dismantled entirely.