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Homeowners Defy Law : 'Graying' Tints White Areas in South Africa

October 30, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When Ebrahim Kajee, a 61-year-old real estate salesman, moved his family into a large, red-brick home in the tidy suburb of Homestead Park a few weeks ago, one of his neighbors showed up before he had even finished unloading the furniture.

The neighbor, Allen McCabe, advised Kajee, who is classified as Indian under South African law, that the community was for whites only. Then McCabe called the police, who chatted a few minutes with Kajee but left without making a fuss.

McCabe, who has organized his white neighbors to fight the illegal "graying," was irritated.

"To me, there is a law making this area white and the government is refusing to enforce its own law," McCabe said later in his living room around the corner from Kajee's home.

Not a Crusader

Kajee said he bought here "because I liked the house," not because he wanted to be a crusader. But he added: "I was born and bred in South Africa. I've never even been to India. Why shouldn't I be able to live where I want?"

South African President Pieter W. Botha said early this month that he supports limited changes in the Group Areas Act that would allow neighborhoods the option of opening themselves to all races. The act, a cornerstone of apartheid, has for 37 years divided South Africa into racially separate residential areas.

But thousands of blacks, Indians and mixed-race Coloreds have already moved into some white working-class suburbs of South Africa's major cities--openly defying the law.

No one knows whether local-option integration would legalize these de facto "open areas" or spur the white residents to militant opposition and the government to mass evictions. But local-option integration already has already created turmoil.

Assailed by Left, Right

McCabe, a 40-year-old carpenter, the father of a teen-age daughter and the coach of a local youth baseball team, said, "One could create a war here if one wanted to."

Although the changes in the Group Areas Act seem assured, they have come in for harsh criticism from both the political left and right.

Clive Derby-Lewis, part of the government's right-wing white opposition in Parliament, predicts that the revisions in the law "will be a green light for people of other colors to flood these (white) areas. There will be chaos."

Helen Suzman, one of the government's liberal white critics in Parliament, thinks the Group Areas Act should be scrapped altogether. But she says she also foresees "endless upsurges of violent hostility and neighborhood warring over whether to become open or not."

A liberal group known as Actstop also complains that the government has not gone far enough. The changes will encourage whites to organize and "open the doors to increased racial tensions," said Cas Coovadia, a spokesman for Actstop, which was formed to fight evictions of blacks and others who have taken up residence, illegally, in white areas.

A few nights ago, McCabe led a group of three dozen middle-aged whites on a march in the adjacent suburb of Mayfair, from a residents' association meeting (in a whites-only recreation hall) to the local police station, where they presented a petition objecting to "the movement of other race groups into our area."

As the group walked past the home of Desiree Steyn, an Indian who had moved in a week before, they shouted, "Keep Mayfair white!"

About 60 black, Colored and Indian supporters of Actstop were waiting when the white delegation returned. Police officers stepped between the two groups to avert a confrontation.

McCabe's group is trying to keep out people such as Dr. Rashid Rajah, who lives nearby in a remodeled beige stucco house with a swimming pool. While his white neighbors marched, the 33-year-old pediatrician took an emergency telephone call and drove to his clinic to check on a pair of newborn twins.

Rajah, his wife and their children, ages 8, 7 and 2, moved into this white neighborhood about four months ago. Their house cost about $42,000, and they have invested an additional $20,000 in renovation.

Tired of Long Drive

They had owned a house in Lenasia, an Indian township about 25 miles southwest of Johannesburg, but Rajah was growing weary of driving to his downtown clinic three or four times a day for medical emergencies.

"To find a legal home, close to my clinic, would have been impossible," he said.

Rajah considered living in one of the city's most expensive white northern suburbs, which also would have been illegal. But he settled on Mayfair instead because it was close to the religious school his two daughters attend.

Rajah had to buy the home under a white name. So he formed a company with a white as majority shareholder, which is the most common way to sidestep the Group Areas Act to purchase homes in white areas.

So far, Rajah says, his neighbors have left him alone. But like many of South Africa's "illegal" residents, he feels a lingering uneasiness.

'You Feel Insecure'

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