South African treason trials reflect new government priorities

A record number of some 50 people face treason charges this year in South Africa, apparently reflecting Pretoria's growing preference for charging political opponents with common law crimes. Political and legal analysts say the aim is to depoliticize the trials. In l984 only 44 people were charged with treason in South Africa. Among those due to be charged is Anglican Priest, Father Geoffrey Moselane, whose detention sparked off a protest march recently through the streets of Johannesburg.

The march was led by the 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg Desmond Tutu.

So far 30 people have appeared in court on treason charges in two trials: 16 people accused in the Natal supreme court in Maritzburg and another 14 accused in Johannesburg.

Those being tried in Maritzburg include veteran anti-apartheid campaigners, among them Albertina Sisulu, wife of the imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader, Walter Sisulu, and Archie Gumede, son of a former president of the ANC.

Pretoria's apparent preference for charging people, including captured ANC guerrillas, accused of major political offences with treason, began in l979, say analysts. In that year 12 men were charged with treason for the first time since the marathon treason trial of l956-61.

From 1961 to 1979, the state did not press treason charges, presumably, some observers suggest, because of difficulty in securing convictions.

The state apparently believes that charges under common law crimes have fewer political connotations than charges under statutory laws passed by legislators closely associated with the apartheid system.

Critics regarded the pressing of treason charges from 1979 onwards as linked with a wider pattern of prosecutions against people charged with politically-motivated offences. Wherever possible, these people were charged with common law crimes such as murder and sedition, critics say. Thus the first ANC guerrilla to be executed after the 1976 rebellion in black townships, Solomon Mahlangu, was hanged for murder, not terrorism as defined in the terrorism act.

If the state's motive in seeking indictments under common law is to depoliticize political trials and to present the accused as common criminals, it does not appear to be working as far as blacks are concerned.

Instead of being seen as murderers, executed guerrillas have generally been acclaimed as heroes by blacks in the townships.

Of cardinal importance to the fate of the some 50 people presently facing charges of treason, analysts say, is the judgment in the trial of Barbara Hogan in 1982. She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

Ms. Hogan was found to be a member of the ANC who had performed non-violent tasks for the outlawed movement, including sending documents on labor matters to the ANC, attempting to establish a trade union for the unemployed, and participating in boycotts. She testified that she did not identify with ANC's use of violence and the state did not try to link her to such acts.

According to legal observers, the significance of her trial and conviction was that it established the precedent that membership in the ANC is tantamount to treason.

With that judgment the state's chances of securing a conviction in treason trials became much greater and its task much easier.

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