Pretoria wrestles with bans

FEW South African ``emergency'' actions are more offensive to the nation's black majority than the detention of citizens without trial. Possibly 30,000 people, one-third of whom are under 18, are held with no word as to why. Making an already intolerable situation even worse, the national police commissioner last weekend banned protests against detention. The move was foolish; it backfired immediately.

The public outcry was swift and clear. In a Cape Town prayer service, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Allan Boesak, and others branded the state action as ``mad,'' vowing to continue their protests. US Ambassador Edward Perkins, the first black in that post, did US citizens proud by attending the Cape Town service. His solid, tall figure, standing for the singing of the black nationalist anthem, conveyed a clear message of support for South Africa's blacks. The US Embassy also issued an unusually strong statement of protest against the new ban.

Fortunately, Pretoria soon realized the absurdity of its latest action and backed down. Government officials stressed that the ban, despite its comprehensive wording, was never intended to bar individual protests or genuine religious gatherings.

The episode was typical Pretoria; the government has long had a tendency to act first and think later. Much that is legally banned is, for political or technical reasons, not really enforced. Mixed residential areas, for instance, are forbidden but tolerated.

If the May 6 parliamentary election shows no great change in white political tenor, as expected, the South African government's practice of taking two steps forward, one back, and three sideways, can be expected to continue. It adds up to bullying - an attempt to hold control by taking away human dignity. Fortunately in this case when the populace made it abundantly clear that the government went too far, Pretoria backed down.

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