Political violence in South Africa has persisted under emergency rule and, by the second weekend of the regulations, showed no clear sign of disappearing. This much being revealed by official figures, the government and its critics are locked in debate over whether the unrest of the past 21 months has begun to wane. The government says yes. Other voices, such as the Saturday edition of Johannesburg's largest newspaper, the Star, say the Bureau of Information has used a ``carefully edited version of its own emergency statistics'' to make the point. The newspaper noted that the government's two-week summary rejected the idea of taking the period as a whole -- which would have meant a higher daily average of deaths -- and chose rather to break it down by weeks.
The Star also said that in comparing the emergency death tolls with the period immediately before the clampdown, no account was taken of the full-scale battle for control of the Crossroads black-squatter camp near Cape Town. This battle, on June 9 and 10, was similar to a previous struggle in May. Together, the battles left more than 50 people dead and some 70,000 homeless.
The debate has become a gruesome numbers game -- daily ``unrest'' tolls are being quoted by all sides like gross national product figures -- made yet starker by legal restrictions on reporting much besides such ``data'' on the country's political conflict. A wide range of other information is potentially ``subversive'' under state-of-emergency media rules and may not legally be reported.
Still, the official figures tell a story, even if South Africans disagree on its meaning. The first week following the June 12 issuance of the state of emergency decree saw more than 40 deaths, one of the highest weekly tolls since the present unrest erupted in late 1984. On June 16, the 10th anniversary of a student uprising in Soweto, at least 11 people died. Last week, the leader of one of South Africa's black homelands said an additional four had died on that day.
Official figures for the second week of the emergency, which ended last Thursday, showed a decrease in deaths in such violence -- only two fatalities each day. But at time of writing Saturday, two more daily reports had added 10 deaths as a result of black unrest, not including the killing by security forces of four alleged African National Congress ``terrorists'' near the border with Botswana Friday. The African National Congress is the most prominent black nationalist group fighting to bring an end to white-minority rule in South Africa.
The government has said both weeks' figures demonstrate that the state of emergency is necessary, and working.
``Soweto Day,'' say officials, would have been much more violent without the emergency. They say there was no major upheaval anywhere, and that all of those who died June 16 were victims of isolated clashes.
The government also stresses that ``black-on-black violence'' -- in which anti-apartheid militants have murdered alleged collaborators with the white regime, or have been killed by political rivals -- is accounting for an increasingly dominant share of the unrest. The two-week emergency summary, released Friday, said 35 percent of the first week's victims and 21 percent during the second week had been killed by police or soldiers.
The government says the security forces have intervened to save more than a dozen blacks from death by ``necklacing.'' This method of murder -- tossing a gasoline-soaked tire around the neck of an alleged collaborator with the white regime and lighting it -- has seen increased usage in black Townships since the emergency came into force.
The government's opponents offer a different view on the root causes of the political violence. But quoting their remarks would be in violation of ``subversion'' rules.
Officially provided details on incidents of violence indicate ``necklacing'' has continued. There has also been a number of incidents of stoning, including one last Wednesday in which a group of more than 200 stone-throwing blacks converged on a police vehicle in the town of Daveyton, east of Johannesburg. Security forces fired and one black was killed. The official report gives no indication that any police or soldiers were killed.
The government has said the state of emergency is a sustained campaign to quell unrest, and to create a more favorable climate for negotiating ``power-sharing'' with those black leaders favoring peaceful change. Opposition politicians in Parliament -- which, until its winter adjournment last week, was the one legally quotable forum for statements challenging the government's strategy -- have said the emergency is having the opposite effect.