THE mailed fist has joined the velvet glove again in South Africa. Last week the government announced plans to permit the free movement of Africans for the first time since the early 1950s. Simultaneously it gave the minister of law and order sweeping, non-justiciable powers to quell unrest. This broad new police authority will be enacted shortly, although the package of legislation abolishing the pass laws and influx control will not be voted until Parliament sits in special session in August. It is clear the government of South Africa hopes that the permissive and the repressive changes, taken together, will end the bitter violence that has seared South Africa for 20 months. More than 1,500 Africans have been killed, two-thirds by the police and Army, and new clashes occur each day in one or more of the country's townships, or black ghettos. Bitterness among Africans is deep and profound, especially among young adults, many of whom now believe that their collective actions can overthrow the hitherto impregnable white state.
The government invoked emergency powers in July, yet the intensity of the township violence increased dramatically. The emergency was ended in March, largely because of Western criticism as well as its own ineffectiveness. Now the minister in charge of the police is being given at least those same powers by law.
The minister, not Parliament or the state president, will be permitted to declare any part of South Africa an ``unrest area,'' whether or not rioting has occurred, and to take any actions whatever to restore order. In effect he will be able to declare his own selected states of emergency. He or his officials can suspend civil rights, detain individuals without trial, impose curfews and press censorship, search and seize without warrant, close businesses, and take property. Significantly, none of these actions or declarations could be challenged in court. Only the president or Parliament (controlled by the current President's National Party) could overrule the minister.
The police in South Africa have long possessed broad authority to curb civil liberties. By giving even wider power to the minister and adding to the existing arbitrary quality of police action, the government will be able to squelch dissent, eliminate news coverage of protest and violence, and make daily life meaner and more confined for Africans (and, conceivably, even for protesting whites). Whether this new authoritarianism will help repress violence any more than the formal emergency remains to be seen, however. If recent South African history is a good guide, the invoking of these new measures will further inflame the great mass of aggrieved and alienated Africans.
Absent the clear intent to employ severe police measures, the lifting of movement restrictions would have been greeted enthusiastically, rather than skeptically, by blacks. For more than 30 years, Africans' movement from any part of their country to any other part has been regulated by white officials stamping pass documents and preventing travel without proof of employment. Likewise Africans could not move freely, even in search of work. It was illegal for them to remain in an urban area for more than 72 hours without permission. Passes had to be carried on their persons at all times, a provision that made it easy and legal for the police to sweep the cities at any time of the day and night, collecting violators, jailing or fining them, and expelling those (usually a majority) who lacked rights to remain.
The enforcement of these and the bundle of 34 laws and proclamations that together constituted influx control ended last week. The little green passbooks with their many official stamps will be phased out, and identity documents similar to those carried by whites will be phased in. Color and ethnic background will be noted, so the new documents can, at least in theory, be read by the police as passes in many circumstances. Moreover, on the basis of past experience with the issuance of documents to whites, it may take South Africa five or more years to introduce these internal passports to its 25 million Africans.
The good news is that the abolition of pass and influx control laws will mean that Africans can work or live anywhere in the African districts of still-segregated South Africa. Africans will be able to move around the country without hindrance, unless the new security legislation is invoked.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged Africans to look at the small print in the new regulations. The bad news is that the availability of housing will hinder the free movement of Africans. Since there is a 30- to 40-year backlog of housing applications, since the supply of nearly all urban housing is controlled by the government, and since the government last week repeated its vehement opposition to squatter housing, the lack of places to live may effectively bar or be used to bar Africans from flooding into the already overcrowded, antagonistic townships.
Little noticed, too, is the fact that along with the positive virtues associated with the proposed repeal of laws restricting black movement and residence will be the revocation of Section 10 of the Urban Areas Consolidation Act of 1945. The provisions of that section now give three classes of Africans the right to live in specified urban areas. That right will be withdrawn, and the advantages long enjoyed by Africans born or regularly employed in the cities will be expunged.
Until the new police powers are employed and Parliament enacts specific replacement legislation in August, it will be impossible to specify whether last week's twin package counts as one step forward and two back, or merely two ahead and two to the rear. As much as the removal of pass laws should be welcomed, both approaches represent an official commitment to alter the impress of apartheid, not to dismantle it.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.