S. Africa security laws could boomerang on whites

A new twist seems to have been added to South Africa's spiral of escalating guerrilla violence and toughening state resistance.

A statement by white union activist Neil Aggett hours before his death in police custody--which described how security police tortured him -- has aroused concern in the country that South Africa's security forces are reacting. Some suggest security practices may be counterproductive to the state's interests.

Police security procedures, these citizens contend, may be endangering the stability of the white-minority government against growing challenge from the black majority.

Dr. Aggett's allegation of police abuse was recently admitted, over government opposition, as evidence by a court investigating the cause of his death Feb. 5. The statement alleges that Aggett was beaten by police and subjected to electric shocks. It has reinforced suspicions here that the physician was either killed by police or driven to suicide.

Critics of South Africa's security practices find the Aggett allegations to be further evidence that police are operating without enough restraint. They see such reports of abuse as slowly undermining respect for the law and leading to more violence. Dissidents, they say, may move closer to those advocating armed struggle against the government.

In court testimony, the government itself admitted that it feared what the Aggett statement might do to the public's image of the police. Arguing against admitting the statement as court evidence, counsel for the minister of law and order said admission would ''reduce the esteem in which the police are held by the public and by other nations. . . .''

Meanwhile, guerrilla violence has risen sharply. Over the past 10 days bombings in four areas have damaged government offices, fuel depots, railway tracks, and power lines and killed one person. The bombings have broken a lull in sabotage incidents extending back to late last year, when security police arrested what they called ''key operatives.''

The recent bombings are assumed to be the work of the outlawed black African National Congress, which operates from bases outside South Africa. They may be tied to the June 16 anniversary of the 1976 Soweto riots.

The surge in guerrilla violence will serve to reinforce the government's contention that sabotage must be met with strong resistance.

The National Party government recently pushed through Parliament an internal security bill that extends the state's right to detain individuals indefinitely without trial. This is the feature of security law that civil rights advocates say is most objectionable.

The opposition Progressive Federal Party has urged the government to search for new means to alleviate the rising tide of violence. In parliamentary debate PFP member Helen Suzman said law and order could be maintained only if the government had the consent of the majority of the people it rules. She urged as a starter the scrapping of apartheid (forced racial segregation) laws that discriminate against blacks.

The government argues it is making reforms. But many blacks scoff at them as ''too little, too late.'' Indeed, one recent bombing was in a Cape Town building that houses the President's Council - the appointed body that drafted a reform initiative for sharing power among whites, Coloreds (people of mixed race), and Indians.

The court decision to admit Dr. Aggett's statement was the second instance in less than a month in which the South African judiciary was at odds with the state.

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