The homelands that apartheid's architects were desperate to portray as independent republics were wily enough to exercise their autonomy when it came to services frowned on by their masters in Pretoria. But times change. These days, the homelands are pedestrian compared with what is on offer in Johannesburg.
They, and their leaders, have virtually outlived their usefulness. The forced removals of black people to tracts of poor-quality land deemed to be their places of tribal origin is a receding nightmare. There is no doubt that the four 'independent' and six 'semi-independent' homelands will be brought back into South Africa proper by a post-apartheid constitution. But until then they are providing one last service for the ruling National Party that conceived, bore and will bury them.
After last Monday's massacre of ANC supporters in Ciskei, President FW de Klerk, out of respect for Ciskei's independence, did not defend Brigadier Oupa Gqozo's right to continue his dictatorship there. However, the homelands are a pillar in the strategy to build an anti-ANC alliance in preparation for multi-
Seated behind the homeland delegations sympathetic to Mr de Klerk at the negotiations on South Africa's future are white advisers provided by Pretoria. The Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, told a National Party conference last week that the government planned to put together an alliance that, with the help of homeland leaders, could take more than half the vote.
It is wishful thinking, but the population figures show that the battle for the homeland vote will be crucial in deciding who governs South Africa. Nearly two- thirds of South Africa's blacks officially live in the homelands. Seven million people are divided between the four 'independent' states - Transkei, Venda, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei, known as the TVBC states.
Another 9.5 million reside in the six 'self-governing' territories, such as Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's KwaZulu, that either resisted independence or were considered unprepared even by Pretoria's low standards.
Three million people were forcibly removed to the homelands - more often than not, places they had never seen. Apartheid's planners designated one homeland for each tribal group or sub-group as part of the scheme to strip blacks of their South African citizenship but keep vast labour pools in reserve. The homeland boundaries were drawn to reserve the best land for whites, leaving tiny blobs of land scattered across vast areas.
Bophuthatswana comes in seven bits, as far as 200 miles apart. KwaZulu is split into 44 pieces. You can drive through a 'foreign country' and never know you've been there. Only Transkei bothers with border posts, and then only on the main road between East London and Durban, which crosses the homeland and is easily bypassed. Most other homelands rarely even put up frontier signs. Ciskei - or, rather, South Africa - only erected them a few days before the tragic march, and then solely in the area of the protest.
The 10 homeland leaders are evenly divided in their sympathies. The military leaders of Transkei and Venda back the ANC. Bophuthatswana's Lucas Mangope, the school teacher turned dictator, takes the same hostile view of the ANC as Brigadier Gqozo. With them, among the leaders of 'self-governing' states, is Chief Buthelezi.
Only Mr Mangope continues to dream that his 'country' can retain its 'independence'. In doing so, he has come up with bizarre schemes, including one to invite conservative Afrikaners who do not want to live in a black- ruled South Africa to share an independent Bophuthatswana, which misses the point about why they want their own white state.
The South African government is exploiting Mr Mangope's hostility to the ANC to the full. As in Ciskei, Mr de Klerk's opponents find it difficult to carry out normal political activity. Village headmen are cajoled and bribed into providing public support for the government. Protests, even over everyday matters such as wages, are often severely dealt with by the police or military. The homeland leadership often controls sources of information, such as radio stations.
The government has tried putting the squeeze on the homelands over finances. One of Pik Botha's common defences of his country over the years has been to highlight its generosity. He has told audience after audience that South Africa provides more foreign aid than any other country in Africa. What he does not tell them is that virtually every rand goes to the homelands.
The TVBC states typically receive at least half their income from Pretoria. Assistance comes in many forms, from straightforward cash to subsidies on flour.
Corruption is rife - a reward for playing the homeland game. When they do not play, the rug is tugged and money to pay the homeland civil servants is withheld. But Pretoria dare not tug too hard, for fear that the whole sordid scheme will collapse.