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Anti-Apartheid Activists Face Trial : Hundreds in S. Africa Accused of Treason, Terrorism

September 05, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In the wake of three years of widespread civil unrest, the South African government is putting hundreds of anti-apartheid activists on trial, charging them with treason, subversion, terrorism and other crimes under the security laws.

Sixty-nine people are currently facing treason charges in six separate cases. Civil rights groups see these cases as "show trials" intended to cripple the United Democratic Front and other anti-apartheid organizations by removing key leaders, making members hesitant to take their places and discouraging community support.

Among those accused of treason are the United Democratic Front's general secretary, publicity secretary and provincial vice chairman, the general secretary of the country's second-largest black labor union, a top commander of the African National Congress' military wing and 30 community leaders who allegedly organized a network of civic associations, street committees and "people's courts" in black townships in eastern Transvaal province.

Other Trials Expected

Nearly 20 other top people in the United Democratic Front have been detained under the state of emergency, now in its 15th month. Their lawyers say the security police appear to be preparing cases against most of them. Other trials are expected following the defection of a senior ANC underground cadre.

Charges ranging from murder, assault and arson to sabotage, subversion and terrorism are pending against 130 other people, most of them local community and youth leaders, in 25 other major cases around the country. Prosecutors have said that special courts will be set up soon to speed the hearing of these and similar cases.

Lesser charges, some under security legislation but most under criminal laws, are pending against hundreds of other political activists, students and labor union members, many of whom were initially detained under emergency regulations but who have now been formally charged. One defense lawyer estimates that more than 2,100 are awaiting trial on these charges, but other observers believe the total number is much higher.

Ripe With Bitterness

Even stripped of much of their emotion and reduced to the point of dry legalese, the cases suggest the bitterness of black militants' struggle to end apartheid. Some examples:

-- Community leaders from the Vaal River region, south of Johannesburg, where the unrest began, are accused of conspiring to make their towns "ungovernable" and thus begin a revolution that would overthrow the state.

-- Thirteen confessed members and supporters of the African National Congress' armed struggle are awaiting sentencing in Cape Town for their roles in a campaign of hand-grenade and bomb attacks there.

-- Eight youths from Alexandra, a black ghetto on the northern border of Johannesburg, are accused of treason and sedition for running a "people's court" that the prosecution says effectively supplanted the state's authority there. Thirty community leaders from eastern Transvaal towns have gone on trial on similar charges.

-- Two labor union organizers are on trial on charges of subversion for leading a consumer boycott in Pietersburg, a conservative town in northern Transvaal.

-- Two black security policemen from Pretoria are charged with working for the ANC. So great is the government's embarrassment that their trial is being heard in secret.

-- Suspected ANC insurgents will be tried in half a dozen outlying towns, most on South Africa's borders with Zimbabwe and Swaziland, on charges of planting land mines that killed white farmers and their black workers.

Among the accused are leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement--Popo Molefe, Patrick Lekota, Moses Chikane and the Rev. Arnold Stofile of the United Democratic Front, Moses Mayekiso of the National Union of Metalworkers, Tom Manthata of the South African Council of Churches, Father Smangaliso Mkwatsha of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference and Ismail Ebrahim, a veteran commander in the ANC's military wing, Spear of the Nation.

Step-by-Step Reforms

In the last six months, prosecutions have begun to rise sharply, and members of President Pieter W. Botha's Cabinet have told Parliament recently that the government intends a further acceleration as a key part of its strategy to end the prolonged unrest and then proceed with step-by-step reforms aimed at a controlled sharing of political power.

Challenged in Parliament about the increase in political trials, Kobie Coetsee, the justice minister, reiterated the government's determination to prosecute those responsible for the violence of the last three years.

"Only when these people have been dealt with can we sit down and talk to others who want to negotiate," Coetsee said.

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