After a progressive narrowing, the South African government has effectively shut off all avenues of legal black protest in key areas of the country. The government is silencing black political dissent in those areas until the end of the month, a criticial period in which the government is implementing its new Constitution.
John Dugard, director of the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says the action is reminiscent of the crackdown in 1977 when all key black protest groups were banned. The present action is not yet so severe. But Mr. Dugard wonders if some key groups, like the United Democratic Front, may soon be banned outright.
So far only the meetings of protest groups have been banned, not the organizations themselves. Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange has prohibited until the end of September any meetings of two or more people that criticize the government. The ban covers 22 magisterial districts, most of them near Johannesburg, where serious unrest flared last week, claiming at least 31 lives.
Black protest and confrontations with the police have been occurring for several months here, apparently sparked by grievances over economic and educational issues, rejection of the new Constitution, and the government says, the incitement of blacks by "instigators."
Still, some analysts say the crackdown is overkill that could be counterproductive and actually stir unrest.
"The government exacerbates the situation by trying to bottle up legitimate protest," says Helen Suzman, an MP for the opposition white Progressive Federal Party.
The new banning order is so sweeping as to prohibit, technically, a husband and wife discussing government policy over dinner. It outlaws "any gathering held where any government or any policy principle or any action of the government or any statement or the application or implementation of any act is approved, defended, attacked, criticized, or discussed or which is in protest against or in support or in memoriam of anything." A gathering is considered to be two persons or more.
Mrs. Suzman says the government's action "gives the impression of a national emergency." She doubts the situation is that serious.
The banning is aimed at indoor gatherings since outdoor political meetings have been outlawed -- unless one gets permission -- since 1976. Registered political parties are not covered by the latest prohibition. But key black protest groups are not registered political parties.
The meetings ban affects organizations that had planned activities to commemorate the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died on Sept. 12, 1977, while in police custody. Black Consciousness emphasizes that blacks must liberate themselves without the assistance of whites.
The United Democratic Front, which welcomes white involvement, is also affected. The UDF was formed a year ago to oppose the new Constitution. That Constitution gives Coloreds (persons of mixed race) and Indians, but not blacks, a limited role in government. The UDF and other opponents of the new Parliament waged a vigorous campaign to boycott elections last month. But on the eve of those votes key officials of the UDF and affiliated organizations -- 18 people in all -- were arrested.
None of them have been charged. Last week a court ordered the release of 7 of the 18. But the government has ordered that they be arrested again.
Five of those seven showed up at the British Consulate in Durban asking the British government to act as an intermediary between them and the South African government. The British refused the request but said they would not forcibly evict the detainees from the consulate.
The request puts Britain in an uncomfortable spotlight because European Community foreign ministers, meeting in Dublin this week, denounced the detentions of those who had boycotted the elections.
As of late Thursday, the blacks at the consulate were talking with Pretoria through legal representatives.
Under South Africa's security laws, those who are detained cannot be quoted in the press. They are therefore unable legally to protest against the Constitution.