Johannesburg — South Africa's already deeply divided society is struggling to digest the implications of yet another highly emotional issue: prima-facie evidence that political detainees have been tortured by police. Two recent events have made alleged ill-treatment of detainees a major public issue:
An order by a supreme court judge restraining the police from assaulting literally scores of detainees.
An investigation by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cape Town into the alleged torture of detainees.
Both events have reinforced the fears of those South Africans who argue that granting police arbitary power to detain people without trial leads inevitably to abuse of power -- and to torture and even death.
About 500 people are currently detained under South Africa's Internal Security Act, which authorizes detention without trial. Another 1,325 people are held under state of emergency regulations put into effect in July.
Since the introduction of detention without trial in the early 1960s, at least 59 people have died in detention. Police have not been found criminally responsible, although there have been out-of-court settlements in civil cases in which the relatives of dead detainees have sought compensation.
Suspicions that detainees are abused and tortured hardened last week after Judge J. P. Eksteen granted an order restraining police from assaulting detainees in two prisons in Port Elizabeth and future detainees in two districts.
Judge Eksteen's order was made in response to an urgent application from a district surgeon, Wendy Orr, in which she detailed ``overwhelming evidence'' of systematic police abuse of detainees. Dr. Orr examined hundreds of detainees in the two jails concerned, citing cases in which detainees charged that they had been tortured.
One man claimed he had been forced to eat his hair, another that a policeman had dropped a brick on his bare foot, a third that he had been suspended from a pole by his wrists and ankles and beaten.
Orr gave clinically precise descriptions of the injuries of detainees. She told the judge that in many cases the injuries were consistent with their allegations.
Shortly before the judge granted his order, the University of Cape Town published the result of an investigation by two researchers into the treatment of detainees. Based on interviews with 176 ex-detainees, the researchers, Don Foster and Diane Sandler, found that four of every five detainees charged had been tortured physically and that nearly all complained that they had been abused or tortured psychologically.
According to Dr. Foster and Ms. Sandler, ``These results provide clear and definite evidence that physical torture occurs on a widespread basis and constitutes a systematic and common experience for those detained for interrogation purposes. [They] contradict in no uncertain terms the standard utterances of state officials claiming that torture does not occur in South Africa, apart from a few isolated cases.''
So far the response from the authorities has been minimal. South African President Pieter W. Botha has stressed that Judge Eksteen's order was an interim order only, while the commissioner of police, Gen. Johan Coetzee, has declined to comment on the report until he has studied it.
But the Detainee Parents Support Committee, a group that opposes detention without trial, said: ``Past experience has shown that detention and solitary confinement leads inevitably to death in detention. We are now witnessing an alarming escalation of deaths in police custody relating to arrests of a political nature.''
After noting that three men from the same small village in the eastern Cape had died within hours of being taken into custody, the parents' committee added, ``We can only fear that more such deaths are in the offing for as long as the police operate with such unbridled powers.''
Political scientists observe that detention without trial is integral to the system of control in South Africa. It is officially justified as necessary to counter ``terrorism'' and prevent a communist takeover. But if arbitrary detention is an essential instrument of control, so is the torture alleged to be associated with it, political scientists contended.
The way these political scientists see it, torture would have two overlapping logical purposes: extraction of information from, and intimidation of, activists who oppose apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation.
But whether it fulfills its intimidatory purpose is questionable: Some analysts fear the abuse of prisoners may alienate and radicalize more people than it frightens.