S. Africa doffs brass knuckles, moves subtly against critics

The South African government is moving swiftly but subtly against budding black political opposition. In the past black activism has been crushed belatedly and in a ham-handed fashion that often embarrassed Pretoria, but this time the tactic appears to be preemptive.

At the forefront of the new wave of black activism in South Africa is an umbrella organization called the United Democratic Front (UDF). Barely two months old, the UDF has become a visible force in black politics, owing to what close observers regard as its organizational abilities and its focus on clearly delineated issues.

The UDF's reason for existence is to oppose the government's proposed new constitution, which is slated to bring Coloreds (people of mixed-race descent) and Indians into Parliament while continuing to exclude the black majority.

The government appears worried about the UDF and is acting to slow its momentum. Last month, a meeting to launch a regional chapter of the UDF in East London - an area of longstanding black activism - was banned.

But the most extraordinary government move came a few days ago when a banning order was issued against a meeting of the UDF's national secretariat in Johannesburg. The banning of black political gatherings is commonplace in South Africa. But prohibiting an organizational meeting - this one inviting only 10 people - is unusual, and regarded by analysts here as a new and more subtle method of stifling black dissent.

The UDF said the move was aimed at silencing them without the government having to ban the organization or to detain or ban its officials - acts that would garner much more publicity.

Political analysts here see two reasons for the government's new and at least in appearance more restrained approach to controlling black political opposition.

The first is the more tolerant attitude the white nationalist government is trying to project, both to a critical West and to the white moderate voters in South Africa it needs for passage of its new constitution.

The second is that the government has learned some lessons of history. At past high points of black activism - the early 1960s and mid-1970s - government crackdowns came fast and fierce. But usually they came after mass black discontent had reached the stage of dramatic public demonstration. Pretoria was forced to act with the world watching.

The government has grown more selective and sophisticated in controlling black dissent, say these analysts. The tactic now appears to be one of trying to stall black movements well before they gain dangerous momentum.

While the UDF seems to be the government's top target, other groups are also feeling repression.

The slightly revitalized black consciousness movement is being chipped away at by the government. A number of commemoration activities honoring black consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977, were banned last month for the first time in years.

And recently the security police confiscated the passport of the president of the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO), Lybon Mabasa. AZAPO is South Africa's main surviving black consciousness organization and after years of relative quiescence, it has sought to reunite black consciousness forces.

Mr. Mabasa's passport was taken after he returned from an overseas trip on which he claimed he had put AZAPO ''back on the map'' internationally. AZAPO saw this as intimidation.

Another development taken seriously by black activists is the recent banning of one of the most politically outspoken black trade unions - the South African Allied Workers' Union. The union has been banned in the tribal ''homeland'' of Ciskei, where most of its members live. And while Pretoria disclaims any involvement since it regards Ciskei as ''independent,'' many blacks see the homeland authorities as puppets of Pretoria.

Another group hit by government restrictions is the Transvaal Indian Congress. That group traces its roots to an organization founded by Mohandas K. Gandhi. It was a partner with the now-banned African National Congress in the so-called Congress Alliance of the 1950s.

The TIC was reinaugurated earlier this year specifically to oppose the new constitution. A recent meeting to campaign against the constitution was banned.

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