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Next Step : White Liberals Take to Barricades : South Africans head off black squatters amid growing tensions over a non-racial future.

February 18, 1992|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLOUBOSRAND, South Africa — It was just by chance, really, that this idyllic, middle-class, white suburb got wind of the government's plan to move more than 6,000 black squatters onto a tract of farmland next door.

But within hours, 500 angry homeowners had gathered in their shady park to elect an "action committee." And by nightfall, men, women and children were posted at barricades on the roads to their suburb.

Home values immediately plummeted and banks suspended new home loans in the area. "I couldn't sell my front gate," lamented one homeowner.

Several hundred Bloubosrand residents, many pushing baby carriages, staged a protest march to complain that the squatters were being shoved down their throats. And people who once supported President Frederik W. de Klerk's apartheid reform plans were having second thoughts.

"If this is the way they're going to handle this 'new South Africa,' then this country is in deep trouble," said Paul Burrows, an advertising executive and Bloubosrand resident.

The sight of this liberal white suburb, nestled in the rolling farmland north of Johannesburg, barricading itself against the arrival of a black shantytown has reverberated all across South Africa.

Whites today are worried and frightened by the rising expectations of blacks and the rapid changes in store for whites as De Klerk tries to end racial inequality in a land where it has been the status quo for decades. De Klerk's support among whites is slipping badly, most political analysts agree. And they say the worst is yet to come.

White frustration with soaring crime rates, a lingering recession and the specter of reform has been displayed in myriad, increasingly violent ways in recent weeks.

Only days before the law-abiding folks of Bloubosrand blockaded their suburb and began a tax boycott this month, lone white men opened fire and killed 12 black strangers in three towns, simply because they were black. And a posse of enraged white farmers captured four black men suspected of killing an elderly white neighbor and beat one of the suspects to death.

De Klerk faces an important test of his support Wednesday, when voters in Potchefstroom, a mining community west of Johannesburg, go to the polls to elect a new member of Parliament. De Klerk's ruling National Party has held the Potchefstroom seat for more than four decades, but political analysts predict that the right-wing Conservative Party candidate will prevail this time.

A defeat for the National Party in Potchefstroom would not change the balance of power in Parliament, which De Klerk's party still controls. But it would be a setback for De Klerk's reform program and might force the government to pay more attention to its right-wing white critics.

De Klerk and his Cabinet ministers shrug off their shrinking support among whites, saying it is part of a mid-term malaise that will evaporate long before the next scheduled white elections, in 1994. And they hope to have a new constitution, with a vote for the black majority, in place before that.

"We have argued all along that we must introduce the vital and fundamental changes as quickly as possible so there is enough time for the voters to realize that the heavens are not falling down on us as a result of these changes," said Gerrit Viljoen, De Klerk's minister of constitutional development.

De Klerk has sought to assuage white fears by promising a binding, white referendum on any decisions made by the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the negotiating forum led by the government and the African National Congress, its main black opposition.

The ANC has objected to the referendum, which would give the country's 5 million whites an effective veto over decisions affecting all of its 37 million people. But De Klerk insists he is duty-bound to take any fundamental changes in the constitution to the whites who elected him, and he says he's confident he'll win that referendum.

If whites vote down the constitutional changes, though, the government "will go back to the drawing board," said Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha. Senior government officials acknowledge that such a defeat would create a political crisis for the National Party, which has ruled South Africa since 1948.

De Klerk's bold plan is to negotiate a new constitution with the black majority but with built-in protection for whites and other minorities. So far, the president's reforms have had little direct effect on white lives. Whites still control the overwhelming majority of the country's land and its capital.

But many whites worry that De Klerk, like Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, has started a process that he can no longer control. And while ANC President Nelson Mandela has sought to reassure whites that their rights and property would be protected in any ANC-controlled government, other black leaders have promised to redistribute white-owned property and nationalize the country's key industries.

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