Johannesburg — Like much of what is called ''reform'' in South Africa, some improvements in the protection of basic human rights here are being criticized as more style than substance.
However, critics see at least one small victory emerging from one of South Africa's ghastly cases of human rights abuse.
The victory: For the first time, a policeman has been convicted of the death of a ''political prisoner.''
Paris Molifi Malatji, a 23-year-old black man, was shot in the head at point-blank range while being interrogated by police in Soweto last year. Last week a South African court sentenced police Sgt. Jan Harm van As to 10 years in prison for Malatji's death.
Human rights advocates were not entirely happy with the sentence. The police sergeant was convicted of culpable homicide, not the murder conviction some observers thought was justified.
But the conviction was the first time after an estimated 56 deaths of people in government custody that a police interrogator had been held responsible. Many of those deaths occurred under highly suspicious circumstances. Many prisoners have been alleged to have hanged themselves and others to have fallen or jumped from windows of their interrogation cells.
The most infamous death of a political prisoner here was that of black consciousness leader Steve Biko. He died of brain damage in 1977 while in police custody. An inquest found nobody was to blame.
The overriding lesson of the Malatji case, say human rights advocates, is that South Africa's security laws continue to give the police far too much power , which all too often is abused by the them.
These critics also see a disturbing new pattern: that South Africa is subtly trying to buff its human rights image more by subterfuge than by meaningful change.
Under South African security laws, one can be held indefinitely without being charged or brought to trial. Persons may be interrogated without access to a lawyer. The police are not required to notify the family of a person who has been detained. And while in detention, the prisoner has no right to access to anyone on the outside.
The first death in detention of Neil Aggett, a white South African, caused a domestic and international furor in 1982. Later, South Africa announced a set of ''safeguards'' for protecting security prisoners.
Groups like the Lawyers for Human Rights and the Detainees' Parents Support Committee (DPSC) say the ''safeguards'' are of little help since they are administered internally by the police and have many loopholes.
Court testimony showed the safeguards were ignored in Malatji's case. Interrogators are not supposed to carry firearms or to question prisoners alone. The policeman convicted of causing Malatji's death did both.
Human rights experts also see the state operating more subtly in the security field. These experts say there is a rise in short-term detentions, where people are interrogated for a day or so and then released. Also, they see an higher incidence of police holding political opponents under the Criminal Procedures Act, which allows the police to hold anyone for 48 hours if the person is suspected of committing a crime. This allows the police to claim such prisoners are not being held under security laws.
The South African Institute of Race Relations estimates there are now some 100 people being detained in South Africa. More than 400 were detained during 1983.
In general, what human rights advocates here want is the restoration of due process of law here and tougher safeguards for security prisoners. They want these safeguards to be legal and not just administrative, and they want an independent watchdog group to enforce them.