Pretoria yesterday launched its toughest crackdown yet on the ongoing violence that has swept South Africa since late 1984. A nationwide ``state of emergency'' was declared at noon. It gave the authorities nearly unlimited powers to censor the press and to search, seize, arrest, and imprison persons deemed a threat to state security. The declaration was made retroactive to midnight, when police had begun detaining hundreds of anti-apartheid activists.
The immediate catalyst for the move, which was condemned by the Reagan administration and which came in defiance of escalating calls by the West for economic sanctions, is the approach of the June 16 anniversary of Soweto's 1976 revolt. That revolt was in many ways different from the current uprising, but many blacks see a connection.
``Our uprising here in 1976 was like a volcano. That is the reason for the white government's problems now! After a volcano, the political landscape can never be the same again,'' said one black man Thursday.
The authorities last week issued a ban on meetings commemorating the black uprising during which some 575 people were killed. But their ban was met by vows from black leaders to go ahead with such meetings.
The government also tried, but failed, to rush through new security legislation giving police broader powers to detain people without trial and to limit reporters' access to areas of unrest.
The police chief of Soweto said he would use his new state-of-emergency powers to bar reporters from the township on Monday, the anniversary date.
President Pieter W. Botha told a nationwide television audience late yesterday that he had imposed the state of emergency to head off the threat of ``large-scale unrest'' on the Soweto anniversary and an eventual takeover bid by what he called pro-Moscow ``revolutionaries.'' Mr. Botha said he was aware that the move would provoke ``punitive action'' from abroad. But he felt compelled to ``keep his country from becoming a Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kampuchea [Cambodia], Afghanistan, or Iran.''
It was in 1976, when Soweto students rebelled over the white-minority government's education policy, that South Africa faced its first sustained round of anti-apartheid violence. It lasted nearly a year, claimed nearly 600 lives, but wound down under the joint pressure of arrests, police reprisal, and inertia.
``Even we were surprised by the scale and duration of the uprising,'' says one black community leader in Soweto, who began his political career in 1976. ``I think one reason the violence ended is that it was that even we felt the need to catch our breath, evaluate.'' That, he says, ``is much less the case in the current uprising.''
Many 1976 leaders have matured, mellowed, married, and had children. According to one of them, ``I'm sometimes scared, frankly, by the new militancy that has taken hold.'' He and other political analysts here note differences between the 1976 trouble and the escalating violence of the past 21 months.
One difference is that the 1976 violence was essentially a student revolt. Its battle cry was ``black consciousness'' -- the aim to win blacks a place in a political, economic, and social system that excluded them.
The current unrest, though powered by militant youths, involves older leaders as well -- from communities, churches, businesses, and the black labor-union movement that was legalized in 1979. The aim has also changed. Many blacks now seek not so much a role in the current South Africa as an overhaul of the political system and a major redistribution of wealth.
The earlier revolt was a Soweto revolt that spread with no discernible pattern or method to other black townships. The present violence has been more national in scale and more costly in terms of lives. Some 1,600 have died in the current upheaval.
In 1976, unrest lacked political coherence or organization. The violence now raging has been sustained with the help of increasingly direct political involvement by the banned African National Congress, the most prominent black movement seeking the overthrow of South Africa's government. Joining the ANC in anti-apartheid activities are other union and black-consciousness groups, as well as the relatively new, multiracial organization called the United Democratic Front.
Outside elements have also helped sustain the momentum of unrest -- notably, foreign political and economic pressures.
In 1976, then-Prime Minister John Vorster took an unrelievedly tough line. But today's President Botha has coupled tough police action with a strategy of gradual political reforms, some of which predated the present violence. As recently as several weeks ago, in a television address, he vowed to sustain both an unyielding campaign to stamp out unrest, and new efforts to negotiate some form of black participation in South African government.
But perhaps the most important difference between the two revolts is that police muscle has, at least so far, failed seriously to faze the current violence. Last July, Botha imposed a similar ``state of emergency'' in several dozen judicial districts. He has, in contrast to 1976, used not only police but Army units in a bid to quell the unrest. But two months ago, with implicit acknowledgment that the clampdown had not worked, he lifted the partial state of emergency.
He suggested in his speech yesterday that there would be no early lifting of the new and more widespread emergency powers. He said that, despite his announced political reforms, ``violence has continued or even increased'' and quelling it once and for all was a prerequisite for negotiation with the ``reasonable majority'' among South African blacks.
The country's major black leaders have dismissed Botha's reforms as mere window dressing. The youngsters who have increasingly come to dominate township politics seem to feel that only continued violence can secure the political changes they demand. Their main target has been fellow blacks, such as local government officials and police, against whom they have launched acts of arson, assault, and murder.
Says one clergyman, ``The change is that large numbers of young people simply have stopped attaching much importance to human life -- whether the lives of others whom they feel have betrayed the struggle or their own lives. They are willing to kill and to die.''