South African President Pieter W. Botha has personally stepped in to try to hush the clamor of criticism of his government after the police killing of 19 people last week in the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage. He called an unprecedented session of all three houses of the South African Parliament late yesterday to urge all members to avoid mention of the violence in their debates until a judge appointed by the government has investigated and reported on the killings. Opposition political parties have expressed growing criticism of the government's handling of the shootings.
President Botha's move is also considered an attempt to reduce tension in the country by limiting heated political debate. It could be followed by a ban on various public meetings and restrictions on certain political leaders, political observers here say.
The judge appointed to investigate the killings, Mr. D. Kannemeyer, started his inquiry on Wednesday by visiting the scene of the shootings and taking evidence from the police officer in charge. Judge Kannemeyer has promised to report back as speedily as possible.
Meanwhile the government has been facing bitter and mounting criticism in Parliament. This has been aggravated by police action against a group of people, led by clergymen, who marched toward Parliament March 26 after a prayer service at a city church. Altogether 264 people were arrested, some of them dragged, as they prayed on their knees, into police vehicles.
The level of criticism of the government was expected to reach its crescendo yesterday when the minister of law and order, Louis Le Grange, was scheduled to give the police version of events.
Earlier, the government was foiled in its attempt to block parliamentary debate by the speaker of Parliament, Johan Greeff.
An august figure, the speaker sits at the head of the chamber in a formal gown, controlling all discussion. Although he is a member of the ruling National Party and elected to his position by an electoral college dominated by Nationalists, once elected speaker he is beyond party discipline and traditionally conducts the affairs of Parliament impartially.
Opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP) members, who serve in the white chamber of the three-body Parliament, got ready to start denouncing what they called the ``hamhanded stupidity'' of the government's treatment of the Cape Town protesters and the ``tragedy'' at Uitenhage.
Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee tried to prevent the debate, claiming Parliament should not discuss the matter while a judicial commission was investigating. The debate might anticipate the findings of the commission, or prejudice it, he stated.
But the speaker, whose word in Parliament is law, ruled that Parliament had every right to go ahead. The heated debate continued, to the chagrin of government members and -- it now appears obvious -- President Botha himself.
The government was also finding that in some ways it had trebled its problems by creating the new, three-chamber Parliament designed to give South Africans of mixed race and Indians a limited role in government.
For example, while the PFP was attacking the government in the all-white House of Assembly, the parties in the other two houses were echoing the attacks in their own debating chambers.
But not only the government came under fire. In the Colored House of Representatives, several speakers were highly critical of Dr. Allan Boesak, the controversial Colored president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, who led Tueday's protest march in Cape Town. They argued that ``the time of shouting politics and slogan politics'' was past and that the time had come now for ``negotiation.''
One speaker said Dr. Boesak was ``trying to turn himself into a hero at the cost of the black masses of South Africa.''
None of the people arrested after the march accepted a police offer to pay the $25 ``admission of guilt'' fine for breaking a law designed to prevent demonstrations near Parliament.
They were all released, but warned they had to show up in court on Wednesday; when they arrived, the case was postponed and the people who had been arrested were told to come back in June.