One black South African's journey from the classroom to the jail cell

CHRISTOPHER NGCOBO was asleep in Room 263 when about 200 men, covered by balaclavas and brandishing rifles, surrounded Glyn Thomas dormitory in the middle of the night. They stormed the hallways of this residence for black students at the University of Witwatersrand, forcing the monitor at gunpoint to open up rooms with his pass key. The security forces roused sleeping students, tore off their blankets, and marched several of them - including Mr. Ngcobo - into waiting vans.

That event, as recounted in an eyewitness' sworn affidavit, occurred June 15, 1986. Today, Ngcobo is still in jail and has never been tried.

Human rights watchers say Ngcobo is one of an estimated 35,000 South Africans who have been arrested under the government's two-year-old state of emergency. And he was one of about 2,500 still behind bars when the harsh regulations were recently renewed for another year. (A Ministry of Law and Order spokesman disputes these estimates as ``totally exaggerated.'' The government does not provide its own figures, however.)

Pretoria originally slapped on the emergency restrictions to quash violence that exploded across black areas from 1984 to 1986.

Dissidents say the upheaval was a reaction to decades of the government's segregationist policies, known as apartheid. Officials say it was part of a revolutionary onslaught by the outlawed African National Congress. And to counter it, they contend, ANC adherents and sympathizers must be ``neutralized.''

Indeed, black townships were scenes of awful acts. ``Street committees'' - youths who organized themselves by neighborhood - took over, terrorizing many residents. People suspected of breaking a boycott of white-owned shops were sometimes made to drink their alleged purchases of oil or detergent. Others seen as government collaborators were killed by mobs that threw tires around their necks, then set the tires on fire.

Even government opponents admit the situation in the townships got out of hand. But they maintain that many of the individuals in detention neither encouraged nor condoned the unrest. In fact, these are the very leaders who are committed to peaceful, nonviolent change - and the ones Pretoria needs if it wants to find workable solutions to black grievances, say critics.

``The government has taken out middle-of-the-road people, those who want change through peaceful means,'' says Audrey Coleman, regional co-chairwoman of the Black Sash, a women's human rights organization. ``The space for peaceful opposition is being closed off. And that leaves very few options.''

In many ways, Ngcobo's background and political involvement are typical. A student activist and leader, the 26-year-old Ngcobo has made the anti-apartheid movement his life. His story provides a glimpse into the personal drama that marks many of his cellmates.

(Journalists routinely are not allowed into South African prisons. This account was pieced together from the sworn affidavits of court applications and interviews with former prisoners, family members, friends, and others who know Ngcobo.)

One of 11 children, Ngcobo grew up in the black township of Soweto: a sprawling place where kids play amid mounds of garbage, and choking smog blankets the chill winter air. Home is a tiny, three-room abode.

Ngcobo's father is a driver; his mother cleans offices downtown at night. Their monthly income was about $150 when all 11 children lived at home. Ngcobo's mothere, Cecilia, a stocky woman with a velvety voice, says the family never talked much about politics. Education was what mattered most: She wanted her children to have good jobs, good wages.

``But it's impossible to grow up in the township and not be politicized,'' says Ngcobo's older brother Jeremiah. ``It starts in the schools with student groups. You can't escape it.''

(Besides Ngcobo, Jeremiah and his twin, Daniel, have been detained. Andrew, another brother who joined the armed wing of the ANC, was killed in 1984 in neighboring Swaziland.)

By the time he reached Meadowlands High School, Ngcobo had became deeply involved in student politics. Bheki Mlangeni, a longtime buddy, says Ngcobo exuded charisma. A chess addict and prize-winning debater, he could be pretty persuasive. ``People listen to Chris,'' says Mr. Mlangeni. ``He thinks, he's unemotional, and he can argue.''

Politics dominated Ngcobo's college career. He was kicked out of Fort Hare University after two years for organizing a demonstration. In 1984, he enrolled at Witwatersrand and was promptly elected head of the Black Students' Society. It was a hot time. The townships had exploded, and campuses were seething with strikes, rallies, protest marches - some of which caused clashes with security police and conservative students.

Mervyn Shear, Witwatersrand's vice-chancellor of student affairs, says Ngcobo's big concern was to keep the protests nonviolent. Mr. Shear credits him with defusing a lot of potentially dangerous situations. Once, Shear was surrounded by a huge crowd of angry black students shouting at him about how security guards had let loose dogs on them and demanding that he do something.

Things were getting nasty when suddenly Ngcobo showed up at Shear's side. ``He told everyone to come to order,'' Shear recalls. ``They all quieted down, and he made them state their complaints, one by one. He is an extraordinary leader.''

Many here believe Ngcobo's high profile made him an inevitable target for arrest once the emergency was declared. He was taken initially to Protea police station in Soweto, then to Diepkloof Prison, a large, bland-looking building south of the city.

According to an affidavit, Ngcobo was interrogated several times about his political views and about a highly charged funeral where he organized patrols to keep the crowd under control.

His lawyer, Kathleen Satchwell, was not allowed to see him until more than a month after he was picked up. It took another two months for the minister of law and order to tell Ms. Satchwell that Ngcobo was being held for propagating consumer boycotts and forming street committees, among other things.

Satchwell says she sent representations denying the allegations and affidavits from Witwatersrand officials, to no avail.

(The spokesman from the Law and Order Ministry says the police often see people committing such offenses, yet victims are too intimidated to testify - which is why some detainees are held without charges.)

``Even if the allegations against Chris were true, they aren't crimes anywhere else in the world,'' contends Satchwell. ``Would Ralph Nader be locked up for more than two years for organizing a boycott?''

So Ngcobo spends his days debating with cellmates everything from weaknesses in anti-apartheid strategies to Shakespeare's relevance to blacks. Besides becoming the chess champion of his section, he has finished his bachelor of arts and is working on a law degree. And he is a kind of section leader, running interference for prisoners with the wardens.

Dan Mashitisho, who was in Diepkloof until last January, says Ngcobo used to joke - as he watched all his friends being released - that he would be the last detainee to go.

His parents are haunted by this thought. They are allowed one, 30-minute visit every two weeks through a glass partition. Mrs. Ngcobo's eyes fill with tears when she talks of not being able to touch her son. His father, Linda, looks out the window.

``I'm proud of Chris and I know that what he does could help to change things here,'' he says quietly. ``I just don't want to see my son grow old in jail.''

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