South African officials more deeply enmeshed in riot dispute

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Many of the officials of the South African government have now become deeply involved in the drama following the police killing of 19 people in the little eastern Cape town of Uitenhage. Included are the President himself, a supreme court judge, a senior Cabinet minister, and others. The government has also banned for three months all meetings by 29 organizations, mainly in the eastern Cape. The United Democratic Front, a group of mainly black organizations, including trade unions, called the banning a ``declaration of a regional state of emergency.''

Deputy Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok has announced that the Army will support police in further efforts to stop the violence in black townships.

[South African police yesterday fired tear gas, bird shot, and rubber bullets into a crowd of mourners near the southern city of Port Elizabeth, wire services quote black news reporters and other witnesses as saying. One person was reported to have died later in the day from injuries received, and nine others were reported as wounded. The shootings occurred as thousands of blacks departed from a funeral for people killed in recent unrest.

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[In a separate funeral near Uitenhage, two riot victims were buried without incident as hundreds of police and Army troops stood by, according to police and witnesses.]

Neither the government ban nor the use of Army troops is unexpected after warnings by President Pieter Botha last week that he had instructed that ``appropriate steps'' should be taken to restore and maintain law and order to thwart the ``diabolical aims of people who wanted to see South Africa `go up in flames.' ''

He was speaking to an unprecedented joint sitting of all three of the newly constituted houses of Parliament in an appeal to cool debate on the Uitenhage shootings. He asked parliamentarians to avoid all discussion of the subject until a judicial commission, now sitting, had completed its work and reported.

But as soon as normal debate resumed, members of the white opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP) declared that Parliament could not ``abdicate its responsibilities'' and lambasted the minister of law and order, Louis Le Grange, as being responsible for a ``breakdown of law and order.''

Members of the ruling National Party then cried ``skande, skande'' (scandal, scandal) and senior ministers appealed to the speaker to stop the PFP attack. But, in line with his earlier ruling, the speaker allowed the Progressives to continue. It was the first time that the newly constituted Parliament was called on to stand up to the might of the executive presidency and it could set a precedent.

While the Progressives were letting fly at the government in the all-white House Assembly, members of the two other houses of Parliament, the Indian House of delegates and the Colored House of Representatives, refrained from debating the shootings.

Government members in the House of Assembly also took no part in debating the allegations against the police. It might be as well for the government that they did decide to abstain from the debate. They could have been embarrassed if they had stuck to the letter of the official version of the shooting given to Parliament earlier by Minister Le Grange because at week's end the formal police account of the Uitenhage killings appeared to be coming a bit unstuck.

In a little court building in Uitenhage itself, senior Supreme Court Justice D. Kannemeyer was methodically piecing together facts about what actually happened on the day of the shooting. Earlier he had driven to the exact spot where the people were killed, inspected certain ``dark stains'' on the asphalt roadway that could have been dried blood and certain ``pits'' in a concrete culvert that could have been caused by bullets.

The first witnesses were policemen, one of them a warrant officer who was in charge of seven men in one of two armored police vehicles present on the day of the shooting. He described repeatedly to the commission the ``screaming, dancing, and shrieking'' of the crowd and said he did not doubt that he and his men would have been killed if they had not opened fire.

``I do not believe there was another way out,'' he said, adding that one of his men translated slogans people were shouting as ``We are going to kill the whites in the town today.''

He said that stones thrown by the crowd were falling like rain on the police vehicle before the shots were fired. But shown police pictures of the scene of the shooting, he agreed there were no stones to be seen.

Cross examined further, he conceded there were things in the official version of the incident given by the minister of law and order to Parliament that were ``exaggerated'' or not true. Minister Le Grange's statement, for example, that the police had been surrounded and pelted with stones, sticks, other missiles and petrol bombs'' could be an exaggerated account, he said. The police had not been surrounded and he had not seen any petrol bombs thrown. The minister's statement that the crowd's leader, a man in a black jacket carrying a brick, was also not true.

However, he said ``I would not call the minister's statement untrue -- perhaps exaggerated, but most of the information is accurate.''

Apart from Judge Kannemeyer, who serves as a one-man commission, a senior advocate is present at the inquiry to represent the minister of law and order. Two others represent the families of the victims and six Progressive Federal Party members of Parliament (who flew to Uitenhage immediately on hearing of the shootings) to obtain a firsthand account as well as affidavits.

Throughout the proceedings so far, Judge Kannemeyer has encouraged public attendance. Once, when a few seats inside the court became vacant, he ordered that people who were outside be allowed in to fill the vacant seats.

Meanwhile, the government's latest ban on meetings has been criticized as a ``strong-arm response'' that might ``turn the verbal debate into a debate with sticks and stones'' by PFP Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. The new ban affects indoor meetings; outdoor meetings other than sports or religious meetings have long been banned

Other politicians justify the ban as being necessary to end the unrest that has become virtually endemic in parts of the country.

There is also widespread agreement, among many Afrikaner Nationalists as well as critics of the government, that bans and police patrols will not provide a viable long-term solution to the problem, and that political changes are the only way to bring lasting peace.

President Botha was given some credit for attempting this at the weekend by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, chief minister of Kwazulu, who said he believed Botha had started ``running with the ball of reform -- even if his knees are knocking.''

But he warned that hopes for a negotiated future would be ``confounded by a tide of black anger'' if the present generation of whites did not repeat not move faster.

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