Repression in South Africa

THE South African government has tightened the screws again on its six-month-old ``emergency'' limits on press coverage and citizen activity. This is repression and intimidation of the worst sort. It ill befits a nation claiming, as Pretoria does, to be a democracy. South Africa's rationale - to prevent an African National Congress (ANC) uprising expected earlier this week - has been questioned by the government's white political opponents as well as by blacks. The left finds the ``irrefutable'' evidence unconvincing; the right sees the action as image-boosting before expected spring elections.

In essence, Pretoria wants to stifle local black political opposition. The government may succeed in slowing down the push for human rights in a legally segregated society, and in diminishing somewhat the publicity that would otherwise accompany it. But the struggle for full citizenship and all the rights that go with it is sure to continue, with or without the government's permission.

By widening the definition of ``subversive'' activities, the government now can arrest those involved in nonviolent boycotts or who establish street committees or community groups in black townships. Some 30,000 South Africans have already been detained during the unrest of the last two years. By increasingly removing the kinds of people who could moderate demands from more radical blacks, Pretoria, it can be argued, increases rather than decreases the potential for violence.

The tightening also sends a clear message to the world that Pretoria intends to make no further reforms until it has an even tighter hold on the reins. Its recent turndown of a multiracial power-sharing plan in Natal is another sign of the direction Pretoria is heading.

The press restrictions, imposing almost total censorship on any news about black unrest, may muzzle the messengers but is unlikely to quash the message. Many blacks in South Africa have their own informal network by which news travels swiftly. Radio broadcasts from the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the ANC in nearby Lusaka, Zambia, will continue. Foreign correspondents and information gatherers in embassies in Pretoria are sure to report back by quiet channels on what is happening. The US State Department could easily share information on black unrest with Washington-based journalists from time to time. So could other foreign ministries. In some instances joint statements by ministries may be in order.

To its credit, the US in practice has been moving away from a policy of ``constructive engagement,'' by which it hoped quietly to persuade Pretoria to make needed reforms, to one of more active criticism of mistaken policies and of broadened contacts with opposition leaders. On his visit to ``front line'' states this week, Michael Armacost plans to meet in Lusaka with ANC leaders. He will be the highest-ranking US official yet to do so. If he makes even a modest public comment of some sort on the meetings, perhaps terming the ANC an authentic nationalist organization, it would remind Pretoria once again that, for better or for worse, the world is still watching.

This is a time for continuous monitoring, as well as frank criticism by the US and the rest of the global community, whenever Pretoria's policies and actions deserve it. The world has a vital stake in what happens in South Africa; its government must not be allowed to assume that its new censorship policies are succeeding.

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