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South Africa Campaign of The Iron Fist

7 minute read
William E. Smith

Among South Africa’s Afrikaner politicians, it is axiomatic that kragdadigheid, a show of strength, wins elections. With that strategy in mind, the National Party government of State President P.W. Botha has been preparing for the May 6 whites-only parliamentary elections by pouring on just about as much kragdadigheid as the country can bear. His government last week was threatening to strike at neighboring countries that might be harboring anti- Pretoria guerrillas and was attempting to enforce harsh new regulations against opposition demonstrations at home.

With a defiant mood of apartheid now, apartheid forever, Botha said in a BBC interview that he would never countenance a black majority government, a black head of state or a scrapping of segregation in residential areas. “I am not prepared to sacrifice my rights so that the other man can dominate me with his greater numbers,” Botha declared. “The other man,” of course, is the 26 million blacks who live in South Africa and its “independent homelands” and who outnumber the whites by more than 5 to 1. Botha said he was prepared to grant “the other man” equal rights, but he quickly added, “I never read in the Bible that to be a good Christian means I must commit suicide to please the other man.”

As the elections approached, Botha directed bellicose statements at nearby Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique, charging that those countries were harboring guerrillas of the African National Congress, the South African liberation movement. The State President and his Foreign Minister, Roelof (“Pik”) Botha, have been warning the A.N.C. that it would face such military strikes if it tried to disrupt the South African elections.

At home the government made another move to silence the voice of protest. General Johan Coetzee, the national police commissioner, announced a new emergency regulation banning South Africans from doing or saying anything to bring about the release of people who have been detained without trial. Of the approximately 30,000 arrested since the declaration of the state of emergency last June, some 8,000 are believed to remain in detention, including about 2,000 minors. Under the latest order it is illegal to participate in “any campaign, project or action aimed at accomplishing the release” of detainees. Among the forbidden acts, said Coetzee, are the signing of petitions, the sending of telegrams and even the wearing of political stickers or shirts bearing anti-detention slogans. Also prohibited are attendance at protest gatherings or any action demonstrating solidarity with those detained.

The new measures were so sweeping that they jabbed a public nerve and produced a thunderous reaction both at home and overseas. Opposition leaders redoubled their attacks against the government. The Detainees Parents’ Support Committee vowed that it would challenge the latest crackdown in the courts, while the Free the Children Alliance declared that the police statement “criminalizes legitimate protest.”

Many critics, including Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and Helen Suzman, a leading opposition Member of Parliament, said they would ignore the restrictions and continue to speak their minds. The secretary- general of the South African Council of Churches, the Reverend Beyers Naude, called on the churches to do their duty and pray for the detainees. “If these actions, undertaken in obedience to God’s demand, lead to possible charges and imprisonment, so be it,” said Naude.

To protest the government action, Archbishop Tutu held a prayer service at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town that drew a crowd of more than 700. Tutu told the gathering: “Beware when you take on the Church of God. Others have tried and have come a cropper.” He added, “The government has gone crazy. I want to tell them that I am not going to stop calling for the release of detainees in or out of church.” Said another clergyman at the service, the Reverend Allan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches: “My plea quite openly is to rise up and revolt against this ban . . . Our integrity is at stake. This is an assault on the very purpose of God for this country. We should never accept it.”

Among those at the Cape Town service was the American Ambassador to South Africa, Edward Perkins, who has kept a low profile since he took up his present post last October. Though the State Department maintained that its policy toward South Africa had not changed, Perkins’ presence was an unmistakable signal that the U.S. disapproved of the Botha government’s recent actions. In a prepared statement, Perkins expressed Washington’s “shock and outrage at the continued detention of large numbers of children.” He also said that the latest crackdown points to “the erosion of fundamental liberties in this country.”

Faced with such a fiery reaction by so wide a range of clergymen, opposition politicians and Western countries, the Botha government staged a hasty strategic retreat. Two days after his first statement, General Coetzee declared that the new policy was not intended to infringe on a person’s right to “make representations” regarding a detainee’s release, nor was it intended to “prohibit prayers for the release of a detainee during a bona fide religious gathering.” Rather, said Coetzee, the new policy was aimed at any action that might “incite” the public to “participate in a campaign” aimed at the release of detainees. Apparently this meant that while individual efforts and prayers might still be legal, concerted actions and campaigns were not.

But the suddenly outraged opposition refused to back off. Tutu and 46 Anglican ministers signed a letter calling on President Botha either to release or bring to trial all those now being detained without charge. The group said they knew they were breaking the ban on campaigning against the detentions, but were doing so because the new regulations were immoral and dangerous and “take us into the realms of totalitarianism.” On Good Friday another group of church leaders carried crosses through downtown Durban to protest the detentions. In Cape Town and its suburbs a group of white women from the civil rights group Black Sash openly defied the new restrictions by standing on street corners with posters demanding, “Why can’t we call for the release of detainees?”

The government’s attempts to look tough were partially undermined by growing labor unrest. The Johannesburg area has been hit by a strike of 20,000 South African Transport Services workers. Nearly 60 railway cars, mostly on commuter trains from the huge black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg, were fire bombed last week, and many others were stoned. Several passengers were injured, and one young black was shot and wounded in the leg, reportedly as he tried to hurl a flaming torch into a railway car. The strike, which started a month ago in a minor dispute between the Transport Services and a single driver, quickly spread to depots all over the region. In addition, a postal worker strike in the Johannesburg and Soweto area was also going on, with as many as 7,000 workers off the job at 32 offices.

All the tough tactics and attempts to blame foreigners for the country’s racial problems, however, did not quiet opposition politicians. Zacharias de Beer, a founding member of South Africa’s Progressive Federal Party, told a campaign rally that Foreign Minister Pik Botha was like a “poker player who knows his position is hopeless and who sometimes kicks the table over.” The government’s calculation, continued De Beer, was “that if you can get the voters to the polls to vote against ((A.N.C. Leader)) Oliver Tambo, then that will be just the injection that the National Party needs.” But in truth, said ! De Beer, “Mr. Tambo is not a candidate in this election. Nor for that matter is Senator ((Edward)) Kennedy. Voters will best serve their own interests by looking at the situation here at home in South Africa.”

Election polls show the ruling National Party to be far ahead, but in some ways it is losing. Botha set out in the campaign to show the world that South African whites solidly support his policy of modest reform of the apartheid system. Instead, it has revealed gaping splits among the whites and growing unrest among blacks.

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