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Disappeared Priest Symbolizes Black African Leadership

August 01, 1986|THOMAS G. KARIS | Thomas G. Karis is a senior research fellow in the Ralph Bunche Institute on the United Nations at the graduate school of the City University of New York

Pope John Paul II has "strongly deplored" the expulsion from Nicaragua of the vice president of the Nicaraguan Catholic Bishops Conference. Since the Pope has been a stern critic of apartheid, one hopes that he also will strongly deplore the South African government's treatment of the secretary general of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference.

He is Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, one of the black leaders who is known to have disappeared into detention on June 12, the first day of South Africa's national emergency. Mkhatshwa is not as familiar to Americans as Bishop Desmond M. Tutu or the Rev. Allan Boesak, whose international prestige has thus far protected them from detention, but he is equally admired by South African blacks. Americans should know of him.

Mkhatshwa is a 46-year-old soft-spoken, charismatic and unifying leader of national importance. Equally important in understanding his appeal is his grass-roots service as a parish priest near Pretoria. He is one of a handful of opposition leaders who have been named "patrons" of the United Democratic Front, the most popular movement in South Africa. A coalition of organizations representing about 2 million people of all races, the UDF is aligned with the outlawed and non-racial African National Congress. Among its other patrons are the Rev. Beyers Naude of the Dutch Reformed Church and imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela.

Mkhatshwa's political evolution exemplifies some of the major shifts in black thinking, and is therefore more interesting politically than that of Tutu or Boesak. In the early 1970s he was a key figure in the Black Consciousness Movement, stressing the importance of excluding "non-black persons" so that oppressed Africans, Coloreds and Indians might talk among themselves. But he came to accept the usefulness of working politically with whites and of "class analysis" and critiques of "racial capitalism."

In April, Mkhatshwa and three Catholic bishops met with Oliver Tambo and other ANC leaders in Zambia. By then Mkhatshwa had been the ranking executive in the Bishops Conference for more than five years. The conference provides guidance on many issues to more than 2 million Catholics in South Africa, 80% of them black, as well as Catholics in Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia.

Mkhatshwa rose from a working-class background in the Transvaal; his mother was a washerwoman, his father a laborer. "Smangaliso" means "wonderful"--the reaction of his parents after six daughters. An outstanding student in Catholic schools, he attended a Dominican seminary and served as a priest among coal miners. He said that "the grinding poverty and exploitation of mining labor" helped to shape his economic philosophy. In 1973 he received a master's degree in theology from the University of Louvain in Belgium.

During June, before the national emergency was imposed and Mkhatshwa was detained, he visited New York briefly at the invitation of the Ford Foundation. He was free on bail after having been arrested May 16 when his church and home were invaded by more than 40 policemen and soldiers, who found a handgun licensed in another person's name. Mkhatshwa said that he was taken away in handcuffs and placed in a bare cell with "stinking blankets" and "food not fit for human beings."

Jail was not a new experience for him. He was detained after the 1976 Soweto uprising, and again for five months after the '77 crackdown on the black-consciousness movement, soon after the death of his friend Steve Biko at the hands of the security police. In 1983, in the Ciskei "homeland," he spoke at a memorial service for students killed at the University of Zululand by supporters of Chief Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi. As Mkhatshwa was leaving the service he was detained and kept in solitary confinement for nearly five months.

During a conversation with me before his return to South Africa, Mkhatshwa stressed the support of the "vast majority" of blacks for the ANC. Referring to the meeting with ANC leaders in Zambia, he said that he fully accepted their flat denial of any communist domination and saw "no evidence of such potential domination." If the "deeply respected" ANC were unbanned, he believed that it could restrain any chaotic violence, but time is working against restraint.

He "hated" the characterization "black-on-black violence" because of its racist connotations and its obscuring of the state's violence and complicity with black vigilantes. He predicted that death threats by the government and vigilante groups would force UDF leaders to act in self-defense. Meanwhile, he said that it was important for the church to avoid becoming a "third force" between oppressor and oppressed; it should identify with popular organizations but remain free to criticize.

The South African regime depicts popular black leaders as extremists of the left who are dominated, wittingly or unwittingly, by communists. This judgment is rejected by the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons Group, which met with Mkhatshwa earlier this year. He certainly is one of the leaders whom the group had in mind in its recent foreboding report on South Africa: "Amidst all this gloom, the quality of the country's black leaders shines through." Mkhatshwa's light, however, is now hidden. On July 31 he began his eighth week in detention without charge, presumably in a bare cell with stinking blankets and food not fit for human beings.

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