After months of halting, halfhearted gestures toward racial reform, South Africa last week finally took a step that may significantly alter its detested system of apartheid. The government announced proposals to abolish the pass laws, a complex web of 34 regulations and proclamations that have severely restricted the ability of blacks to move freely within the country. The laws, said an official white paper announcing the reform, are a "relic of the past" and will be replaced by a non-discriminatory program of "planned, positive urbanization." Declared State President P.W. Botha: "Today we have arrived at the emancipation from guardianship of the black and the brown and the rejection of the colonial domination of the past."
Under the new policy, blacks will no longer be required to carry passbooks that stipulate where they can live, work and travel. Parliament, which is dominated by Botha's National Party, still must approve the new proposals. But in a gesture of goodwill, Pretoria released 245 blacks who had been imprisoned for pass-law offenses. The hated passbooks will be replaced with identification cards issued to all South Africans over 16 years of age. Although the new documents will indicate the bearer's race, no one will be penalized for failure to carry them.
In Washington, the Reagan Administration hailed the proposed reforms as a "major milestone on the road away from apartheid." But public reaction inside South Africa was mixed. Business groups and other moderates cheered the news. The government's actions, said John Kane-Berman, director of the antiapartheid South African Institute of Race Relations, rank along with the legalization of black trade unions in 1979 as "the most important reform in South Africa since World War II." Many black activists, on the other hand, viewed the measure--welcome as it is--as too little, too late. "Apartheid cannot be reformed," says Patrick Lephunya, a spokesman for the United Democratic Front, the umbrella organization for some 600 antiapartheid groups. "It must be eradicated."
The sweeping decision to repeal the patchwork of influx laws comes after the country has endured 20 months of violent protest against apartheid in which nearly 1,500 people, most of them black, have been killed. Had the reform come earlier, it might have been hailed more widely as an attempt at peacefully easing the country's racial difficulties. Indeed, the proposed changes fall far short of now clamorous black demands for full political representation. Nor do they threaten the legally enshrined principles of racial segregation, which include separate schools and residential areas for different racial groups. All this prompted some critics to question the depth of the government's commitment to change. Warned Archbishop-elect Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, the 1984 Nobel laureate and outspoken critic of the government's policies: Blacks must "be aware of the small print. Some form of influx control may be brought in through the back door." Tutu's concerns were further aggravated later in the week when security officials detained his antiapartheid colleague Bishop Sigisbert Ndwandwe, a black, charging him with inciting public violence.