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South African officials more deeply enmeshed in riot dispute

By Humphrey TylerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1985

Cape Town

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.''

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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.

[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.