S. African activist behind prison march

Allan Boesak, who plans to lead a large protest march in Cape Town tomorrow despite stern government warnings, will be fortified by his belief that Jesus is the ``Black Messiah who was raised from the dead to liberate the oppressed''. At first glance Boesak, a South African Colored (person of mixed race descent), is an unlikely proponent of ``liberation theology'' or civil disobediance.

A bespectacled, quiet-spoken man with a scholarly manner, he seems to belong more to the halls of learning than to the world of action.

But permeating his easy manner is passionate conviction. Coexisting with Boesak the scholar is Boesak the man who has become one of the country's most outspoken opponents of apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation.

If the mass march to Pollsmoor prison to present a message of solidarity to Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed African National Congress, leads to a clash between police and the protestors, Boesak could be charged under section 54 of South Africa's Internal Security Act. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 25 years.

South African Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange has said ``stern action'' would be taken if the march is held. It would be an open defiance of government restrictions on outdoor meetings.

As Boesak has acknowledged: ``Engaging in liberation theology in the South African situation is an extremely risky business.''

[Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Winnie Mandela has asked for permission to make a routine visit to her husband in prison on Wednesday, and that she says she will participate in the march if it is held.]

Boesak has raised his voice consistently against against apartheid and inspired thousands in speeches at funerals of unrest victims and at mass meetings throughout South Africa.

The 39-year-old Boesak is credited with being the inspiration behind the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983. The UDF is now regarded as South Africa's premier extraparliamentary, anti-apartheid opposition movement.

Today the UDF is fighting for survival against a government onslaught. Over the weekend more than 20 of its officials were detained.

Boesak has already been charged under the Internal Security Act for disobeying a police order three weeks ago not to enter a black township. (The trial in that case was postponed on Monday.) In July he called on blacks, by which he meant all nonwhites, to extend their boycott of white-owned shops from the eastern Cape Province to the rest of the country. In June he angered and dismayed many white Christians when he called for a national day of prayer for the downfall of the government.

His intellectual curiosity and his interest in religion and philosphy lead him to the Theological University in Belville, near Cape Town.

The Theological University was run by the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or NGK, as it is popularly known. The NGK, the dominant of South Africa's three Dutch Reformed churches, is divided into four segregated branches, one for each of South Africa's four ``races''.

After his return from studying abroad in the United States and the Netherlands, Boesak became a major force in the what was known as the ``Broederskring'' -- Brothers Ring. The group is an alliance of radical clergymen in the NGK that wanted to revolutionize the church into an anti-apartheid force.

In 1983 Boesak was elected to the presidency of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

South African security police kept him under surveillance after he became senior vice-president of the South African Council of Churches, itself a major anti-apartheid group. They learned of his friendship with a church worker, Di Scott, and, according to the Johannesburg Star, began to circulate pamphlets asserting that he and Ms. Scott were having an affair.

Boesak, a married man with four children, later acknowledged that he had a ``relationship'' with Scott. He said: ``No person should be forced to disclose his deepest feelings in public. I will not try to explain the relationship.''

If the purpose of leaking details of Boesak's private life was to discredit him completely, it failed. While it almost certainly hardened the opposition of those who differed from him politically, it had little or no effect on the esteem in which he is held by thousands of blacks throughout the country.

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