Already locked in combat, the church and the South African government appear headed for a showdown. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu's call Sunday for a boycott of upcoming municipal elections was the most serious in a series of increasingly vituperative exchanges between the two. Under a 26-month-old state of emergency, it is illegal to advocate an election boycott. Violators can be fined or imprisoned.
That Archbishop Tutu would risk what one political analyst calls ``this year's most outright act of resistance'' underscores the degree to which the church has taken over the fight against the government's segregationist, ``apartheid,'' policies. One of the last opposition institutions still allowed to function, the church is also perhaps the most protected. As such, it has begun to test Pretoria in a way almost certain to lead to confrontation.
``This is a clear challenge to the government,'' says Tom Lodge, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand. ``If it does nothing, its position is considerably weakened. If it acts against Tutu, it will face huge repercussions here and abroad.''
(A Ministry of Law and Order spokesman said the police wanted to study Tutu's statement further before commenting.)
Many of the English-speaking churches increasingly have been on the firing line since Pretoria effectively banned 19 anti-apartheid organizations earlier this year. But certain events of the last few weeks have helped raise the battle to a new pitch.
Last week an explosion severely damaged the building that housed the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and several other anti-apartheid organizations. About 26 people were injured in the blast, which demolished offices and records. A right-wing group calling itself the White Wolves claimed responsibility, but police have yet to name a suspect.
As a result, Rev. Frank Chikane, SACC general secretary, criticized the government's ``sinister silence'' regarding attacks on buildings owned by church and community organizations. This, the Reverend contended, was in sharp contrast to swift allegations that the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), the most prominent antigovernment group, was responsible for a recent spate of bombings in white neighborhoods.
In response, Law and Order Ministry spokesman Brig. Leon Mellet explained that the security forces' infiltration of organizations such as the ANC made it relatively easy for the police to solve leftist bombings. Attacks that came from other groups were more difficult to pin down, he said.
The mudslinging continued and took a nasty turn when police implied the blast may have come from explosives stored in the building - a suggestion roundly denied by Chikane. Then came a clear threat from Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok to crack down on anti-apartheid clergymen. ``We must clip their wings - as we clipped those of the 19 revolutionary and activist organizations,'' Mr. Vlok said.
The government apparently has had its eye on churchmen as suspected conduits for what it says is a communist-inspired revolutionary onslaught. The ANC and the South African Communist Party, which is also banned, ``are using the preachers now,'' contends a ranking member of the State Security Council, a Cabinet-level body that advises President Pieter Botha. ``They realized Christianity is a big factor here, so they went after the preachers,'' he added.
Thus, Tutu's statements seem all the more likely to put him on a collision course with the government.
``I urge black people in this diocese not to vote in the October elections, and I hope that white Anglicans would join their black fellow Anglicans in that action,'' he said at a Cape Town church service.
He could hardly have picked a more sensitive subject. Pretoria views the poll as vital to its security strategy, which aims at co-opting a ``critical mass'' of blacks. The country's 28 million blacks have no say in national affairs, but are allowed to vote in racially segregated elections for town councillors.
The government's security strategy includes crushing anti-apartheid activists, then pouring millions of dollars into long-neglected black areas to win over residents. In doing so, it hopes to get blacks to take part in elections - a step toward negotiating a new political dispensation. But activists historically have rejected participation, branding those who take part as collaborators with the white-ruled government.
Anti-apartheid groups have organized widespread boycotts of past elections. And, although they are now restricted by emergency regulations, the call to stay away is out.