Pretoria media curbs aim to limit audience of apartheid foes. Afrikaners have legacy of pressing newspapers to use self-censorship

Pretoria is mounting an all-out campaign to choke off communication between anti-apartheid militants, both black and white, and the rank-and-file township blacks it views as unwilling participants in the past two years of unrest. The bid to control what blacks in Soweto and other segregated black townships hear or read is being waged on several fronts, and has gained fresh momentum with the announcement of last week's tightened restrictions on the news media. Elements of this bid include:

The arrest of influential anti-apartheid figures. This began with the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency in June. Although estimates of the numbers held vary, officials acknowledge that at least some 10,000 people have been detained in the past six months, and that as many as 7,000 are held at any one time - usually without specific charge.

The banning of books or pamphlets that spread the message of black nationalism, socialism, or communism in the townships. This is done by adding publications to the official list of ``undesirable'' literature - a list, available behind the counter of almost all major bookshops, that now runs to some 400 pages.

In recent years, censorship has loosened in some areas - including theoretical texts on Marxism and even black nationalism. And some foreign books have been unbanned. But the censors are bearing down on pamphlets, posters, leaflets, or books by black-community organizations, the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, and the exiled leadership of the outlawed African National Congress.

The tightening of restraints on South African newspapers with wide readership among township blacks. Three of these have been served restriction orders since the announcement of last week's news media curbs. The editor of a fourth newspaper was arrested last week.

Government officials say privately that the major aim of the new restrictions, which apply not only to newspapers but to ``subversive'' statements by individual South Africans, is to keep black leaders or ``radical'' newspapers from publicizing antigovernment activities.

Above all, the officials say, this will be applied to boycotts of the sort recently mounted against a variety of targets: schools in black areas; the paying of rents and service payments to government-supported township councils; and purchases from a variety of white businesses.

Initially, the authorities had hoped to enlist the help of the mainstream white press in the campaign. President Pieter Botha met earlier this month with the owners of major South African newspapers. They say that he suggested they draw up tightened guidelines for themselves. If they did so, the government would exempt them - but not, an official explains privately, publications of the sort singled out in recent days - from any tightened media law.

The newspapers declined to go along. Officials say they are still hopeful that the mainstream press will eventually present a draft of tightened self-restraint guidelines - probably by February. If sufficient for the government, the officials suggest, the recently announced curbs might be lifted for the mainstream press.

This approach is in keeping with a long tradition of government dealings with South African newspapers, and reflects a deep ambivalence on how to handle the media. The Afrikaans-speaking whites who predominate in Pretoria's government came to power in 1948 with a deep distrust of the press.

Most newspapers were in the hands of English-speaking South Africans with whom they had been locked in rivalry for more than a century. The English press assailed the Afrikaners' construction of the apartheid system of race segregation every step of the way. And because most foreign reporters here used the English-language newspapers as a major source of news and comment, the government blamed these papers for foreign attacks on apartheid.

In a succession of moves beginning in the early 1950s, the government has sought to rein in such critical news coverage or editorial comment - but has hesitated to risk international opprobrium by doing so too harshly. The pattern has been to hint at tightened control and thereby pressure newspapers to control themselves.

The result has been considerable self-censorship and some 100 statutes restraining newspapers and their writers and editors. Several newspapers serving blacks have been banned outright.

In the current tug of war with the press, the government once again seems to prefer the threat of reprisal over an unfettered crackdown. But there is an important difference from earlier censorship trends: Pretoria's mood of defiance toward the outside world. Whereas the fear of world opprobrium once acted as a brake on official dealings with the news media, the goverment is now bitterly resentful of political and economic sanctions imposed by a number of foreign powers. The feeling among many officials here is that no matter what the government does - reformist or repressive, democratic or autocratic - the international community will continue to bear down on it.

So far, there seems little prospect of retreat on the bid to restrain communication to the potential foot soldiers of black political unrest. The campaign is emerging as central to the government's overall strategy on dealing with the country's political conflict. Stymied so far in attempts to win widespread black applause for their gradual repeal of apartheid statutes, or black participation in talks on ``power sharing,'' officials argue that the setback has been the result of a ``communications'' battle in black communities.

Officials feel that during the past two years, black militants have been making advances in that battle through ``intimidation'' and violence against people who would ordinarily welcome government reforms. ``How can we expect to get negotiations started while the radicals are intimidating ordinary citizens?'' remarked one government official interviewed on the new press rules.

The government's opponents say that this strategy is flawed because Pretoria's definition of power sharing is seen as presuming open-ended domination by whites - a concept, they say, growing numbers of blacks here need no intimidation to reject.

This article was written under the South African press restrictions of Dec. 11. Those curbs bar transference of material concerning security actions, protests, detentions, or ``subversive'' statements without government clearance. This article was not submitted for clearance.

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