The South African government has taken a calculated risk by arresting anti-apartheid activist, Rev. Allan Boesak. The action is meant to stop the march he planned to lead today to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela, leader of the banned African National Congress, is serving a life sentence. The question is whether the arrest will inflame black passions and provoke more violence.
The aim of the march was to show black solidarity with Mandela and to demand his release. Its organizers estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 demonstrators would participate. We will ``turn South Africa on its head'' Boesak had said before his arrest.
The United States State Department has lodged a protest with the South African government over the arrest. A spokesman said the action would only ``exacerbate the current cycle of polarization and tension'' in South Africa.
Within a day of the announcement of the march, police arrested nearly 30 of Boesak's associates, leaving him the most visible figure promoting the demonstration.
The march was under the auspices of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an alliance of many anti-apartheid organizations ranging from black trade unions to religious groups.
Boesak, a leading church figure in South Africa, is also the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and a founder of the UDF.
He vigorously promoted the march, addressing mass meetings of young children at various Cape Province schools. It was after one of these meetings, at the University of Cape Town, that Boesak was arrested at a police roadblock while traveling back to his office.
The law under which he is being held allows the police to detain him almost indefinitely, without bringing charges, and without trial.
The police had such powers even before the government imposed a state of emergency in certain areas of the country July 20.
Sources here state that the march had considerable potential for erupting into violence although Boesak and his associates declared it would be a peaceful demonstration, provided the police stayed out of the way.
Political tensions are very high and a minor incident could started trouble. Even Boesak admitted that the march would be technically illegal.
The government, for its part, made no bones about its intention to stop the demonstration. If plans for the march went ahead, the government would ``take firm action'' to prevent it, warned Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange.
Boesak had predicted that even if he were arrested, it would not matter. He claimed that the protest movement in Cape Town has gained such momentum that it will carry on by itself, leaders or no leaders. The first reaction of people close to Boesak, after his arrest, was that the march would indeed go on.
For this reason some observers believe it would have been safer to have allowed Boesak to remain free so that he would be available to control a crowd if it threatened to become violent.
There were signs that the government was considerably strengthening the police and army units deployed around Cape Town yesterday in anticipation of trouble.
The government's security forces appear to be trying to prevent black youths from gathering for the march by stopping foot processions or convoys of cars or buses leaving the black areas and making their way toward Pollsmoor Prison, or any central gathering point.
In 1976, the last time there was serious violence in Cape Town, crowds of youths suddenly emerged in the center of the city in spite of roadblocks and other barriers on the main roads to town.
They had simply caught the train, and were taken for everyday commuters.
There are no stations convenient to Pollsmoor Prison, but it demonstrators could make use of the city center, or major suburban shopping centers.
The continuing violence sent the value of the South African rand to an all-time low yesterday of one rand being worth 35 US cents.