Johannesburg — The case of "Walter Mbete and 52 others" took just seven minutes to dispose of. But some analysts here think it marks a sweeping change in the politics of protest in South Africa.
For Mr. Mbete and those 52 others -- including Bishop Desmond Tutu, the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches -- were all church leaders in this racially divided country.
And they were arrested for involvement in a collective act of civil disobedience to protest an action of the South African government.
The incident is thought to be the first time a group of religious leaders here have staged such a protest. And it comes at a time of growing unrest in South Africa, marked by a continuing school boycott, the shutting down of a major black university, and mass demonstrations that have led to violence in Cape Town and other cities.
The church leaders, many in full clerical garb, were jailed as they marched on police headquarters in Johannesburg to protest the detention of the Rev. John F. Thorne, a Congregational minister who had been working with Colored (mixed race) students who have been boycotting their classes.
After spending the night in racially segregated cells, the multiracial church group appeared before a Johannesburg magistrate for a perfunctory hearing. Their case was continued until July 1, when they will face charges of violating the Riotous Assemblies Act -- a far-reashing law that prohibits virtually all outdoor gatherings except at sporting events -- and with obstructing traffic.
As the first detainees emerged from the courthouse some two hours after the hearing -- to joyful reunions and cheers of approval -- the Rev. Walter Mbete, a Methodist minister, said that the protest and subsequent arrest "has brought the ministers together. It transcended all the denominational and color barriers."
Waiting to greet the detained church leaders was the Rev. Alan Boesak, an influential figure in the black Dutch Reformed Church. He predicted that peaceful protest will become "the new life style of the church in South Africa. And that is important."
Bishop Tutu, arrested along with his wife Leah, agreed that "a new kind of solidarity appears to have emerged."
"Maybe the churches will not be quite the same after yesterday," he added, concluding that the protests are yet another sign to the government that black people here "are not going to remain unfree."
The government can hardly have missed the point, with a school boycott by Colored and Indian students now entering its second month. The boycott, started to protest unequal educational opportunities for non-white children, has now widened to include labor and other issues.
Student unrest has flared in all four of South Africa's provinces. The black University of Fort Hare has been closed, and students at a number of other universities are boycotting lectures. This past weekend, violence flared in Cape Town when riot police clubbed student demonstrators in a downtown shopping mall. Last week, shots were fired by police in a black township outside Bloemfontein, South Africa. Two women were wounded.
Police are detaining black leaders across the country in an effort to quell the disturbances.
One black leader, Curtis Nkondo -- president of the Azanian Peoples Organization -- was released from detention this weekend, and then was banned. (Azania is what blacks call South Africa.)
The banning means Mr. Nkondo may not be quoted in any publication, attend any meeting, or teach at any school or university.
No reasons were given for the government move.