When South Africa frees hijackers

South Africa has given itself a challenge with the recent swift and light court action on a gang of mercenaries who hijacked an airplane. The challenge is to deal with future cases without the double standard of justice so strikingly evident here.

This was a reminder on an international scale of how South Africa often applies laws less stringently to white people, such as the quickly released mercenaries, than to black people. The 44 mercenaries, many of them South Africans, hijacked an Air India plane to escape from their failed attempt at a coup against the government of the nearby Seychelles. South Africa let 39 of the hijackers go with no charges. It freed five others on bail after charging them with kidnapping instead of hijacking.

The action immediately fed suspicions that South Africa was supporting a coup against a leftist regime it would like to see replaced. Be that as it may, there was certainty that many black persons arrested in South Africa have not had similar leniency or prompt disposition of their cases. They have borne the brunt of laws permitting preventive detention, lumping vague intentions under terrorism or sabotage, and sometimes requiring that the accused themselves prove their innocence to avoid conviction.

The South African rationale for such laws is the quite proper one that only peaceful means of change or protest should be allowed. But the effort to overthrow a government, the hijacking of an airplane, cannot be considered peaceful means when perpetrated by whites any more than by blacks. South Africa has the opportunity to dispel this episode's impression of injustice by showing scrupulous attention to equal application of the law.

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