South Africa: to learn from a tragedy

Will South African authorities learn from the tragic episode of imprisoned union official Neil Aggett and its aftermath? They have constructive governmental and business initiatives to build on. Economic and political stability depends on the pace of reform.

By now the world knows of Dr. Aggett's death after being held in solitary confinement for some 70 days without charge. The protests by both black and white South Africans have been headlined. Less publicized are these potential aids toward peaceful change:

* Governmental. A commission has recommended new protections for persons held under legal provision for indefinite detention.

The need for reform is evident. Dr. Aggett was reported to be the 46th prisoner and the first white person to die in detention under security laws since 1963. Last month the Johannesburg Star covered most of a page with the names of 361 persons it found to have been detained, many for months, since the beginning of last year. It described the security laws as permitting imprisonment without trial and without most normal legal safeguards. It reported that there was a sharp rise in detentions in recent months. It editorialized that ''nobody should be lulled into accepting detentions and bannings as a normal part of the South African scene.''

If South Africans are not to be lulled into accepting such outrages, they would seem to have to support at a minimum such commission recommendations as these: controlling the length of detention, providing an ''inspector of detainees,'' and permitting visits by other than government officials.

* Business. Business organizations and many individual companies at least tacitly supported the Aggett protests by not interfering with work stoppages called by black unionists. This was seen to reflect a growing recognition by American and European as well as domestic firms of the need for unions truly reflecting a work force that depends more and more on black participants.

The unions, by this reasoning, are needed for communication since there is no other established channel. Their acceptance by companies may be followed by new difficulties. But this can be seen as a hurdle to be gotten over some time, and the sooner the better. For South Africa's economy depends on development and use of its human resources. In some cases blacks are already going into previously white skilled jobs, not because of any legal change but because there are not enough whites to fill them.

US companies, for example, find that they have to be concerned with their black workers not only on the job but in the communities they go back to.The crowded black townships can have a negative effect on workers. So businesses have reason to want reforms against the discrimination that holds back black development.

A number of corporations are stepping into the vacuum left by the government's inadequate education system for black people.The Ford Motor Company has set up a technical training institute near its Port Elizabeth facilities, for example. Foreign and domestic companies have contributed some $5 million for a commercial college in the black township of Soweto.The immediate demand for places has been so great that one might wonder why business shouldn't immediately come up with another $5 million -- a good investment.

Yet how much should outsiders give to the education that South Africa, like other lands, might be expected to provide for its own? It is one part of the question of whether the authorities will learn from what is happening.

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