Save the Sharpeville 6

A DECISION by South Africa to cancel the planned Friday hanging of six of its black citizens would serve the best interests not only of the nation's black majority but of the government itself. Capital punishment is a repugnant enough approach to problems under any circumstances; it is particularly offensive in a repressive state that operates under an official policy of racial segregation.

The five men and one woman were convicted of complicity in the 1984 killing of a black township councilor in Sharpeville; the incident was part of a nationwide anti-apartheid protest that went on for two years and left more than 2,000 blacks dead. The six were not held directly responsible for the murder but convicted of having a ``common purpose'' as members of a mob gathered outside the councilor's home with what the government says was the intent to kill him.

The plan to hang the six has a regrettable political dimension: It appears aimed at winning back to Pretoria's ruling National Party white voters who have been moving to the right in recent elections. South African officials would do well to focus instead on the broader question of the nation's future. To be seen as compassionate, just, and rational by the overwhelming majority of South Africans is in the end most important. For the government to proceed toward a hanging with blinders on only enhances the image of the six as political martyrs and underscores its authoritarian image.

In an unusual and welcome move, President Reagan, hitherto not hasty to chastise South Africa or impose economic sanctions upon it, has added his voice to those pleading for clemency on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. South African President P.W. Botha insists petitions for mercy will get ``careful consideration''; he would act wisely to heed the world's call to block the hangings.

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