JOHANNESBURG — MOVES toward political liberalization have not been matched by an improvement in South Africa's dismal human rights record, lawyers say. ``We still have a long way to go before we can say there is a human rights ethic prevailing in this country,'' said Peter Mothle, co-director of Lawyers for Human Rights.
He said that the only tangible improvement had been the lifting of the nationwide emergency last year and a sharp reduction in the number of detentions.
``Everything else is a change on paper only,'' he said.
Racial discrimination remains in place and the Internal Security Act, which provides for arbitrary detention and the bannings of individuals, groups, meetings, and publications, has not been changed. Human rights in vital areas such as education, housing health-care, and basic services lags behind, he said.
Mr. Mothle spoke to the Monitor as he worked to secure a stay of execution for a Death Row prisoner who is due to be hanged today. It would be the first execution in South Africa since President Frederik de Klerk suspended all hangings 22 months ago to allow for a review of new legislation.
The new law no longer makes the death penalty mandatory for conviction of capital offenses and the judiciary has been given wider discretionary powers.
But the decision to resume executions has outraged human rights and anti-apartheid groups.
There are presently 341 people on death row, according to the Justice Ministry. At least 55 are political prisoners.
Prior to the 15-month moratorium South Africa had one of the highest rates of judicial executions in the world.
``Africans [black South Africans] believe that the administration of the death penalty is loaded against them,'' said Mothle.
``By resuming hangings the government is antagonizing the political support that was forthcoming for its reform initiatives.''
There was a 70 percent increase in the number of political trials last year (697) compared with 1989 (395) which recorded a three-fold increase over 1988.
Dr. Max Coleman, a medical doctor and commissioner of the anti-apartheid Human Rights Commission (HRC), said there were ``strong indications'' that the security sector was resisting De Klerk's attempts at political liberalization.
According to the Commission's human rights update there were 150 people in detention at the end of January: 48 had been detained all month.
He said that over the past 30 years 180,000 people - including 15,000 women and 10,000 children - had been detained without charges under the Security Act.
Dr. Coleman said section 29 of the Act - providing for indefinite detention for the purposes of interrogation - was tailor-made for abuse and torture which, he said, was still continuing.
The government has undertaken to review the Act but thus far has failed to make any changes.
Toward the end of last year the authorities allowed family visits for the first time.
Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok said last month the Act would remain as long as terrorism threatens the state. It would be up to the next government to scrap the law, he said.
Over the past year the government has also detained extreme right-wing elements suspected of plotting violence.
Coleman said there was no sense in disbanding the Security Police - as was announced by the government at the weekend - and absorbing them into a larger crime prevention unit if the law that created political prisoners remained on the statute books.
The Security Police - an elite within the police force - were the symbol of apartheid repression and torture for millions of black South Africans.
``The most significant move the government could make on human rights would be to abolish the Act in its entirety,'' said Coleman. ``There are ample existing laws to deal with all eventualities.''