HARARE, Zimbabwe — As little Nthabiseng Mabisa, 13, who is paralyzed from the waist down, sat in her wheelchair and quietly recounted how she had been shot in the stomach and then in the back by South African soldiers, tears formed in the eyes of many listening adults.
The soldiers had raided the family's home--why she did not know--and shot and killed her aunt, she said. They then shot her as she fled and again as she tried to get up and run.
By the time Nthabiseng, whose name means "Make me happy," had finished her story, those initial tears of pity had become the outrage and anger that the international anti-apartheid movement wants to turn into a new campaign focused on "the defense of the children of South Africa."
"A South Africa that is prepared to use its military and paramilitary might against children is a state that should be outlawed," Anglican Archbishop Trevor Huddleston said at a four-day conference here on "children, repression and the law" under apartheid.
"The issue of children's rights is the most effective way of bringing home to the world the impact of apartheid on South Africa's future," Huddleston said. "Children's rights is something that none dare say is wrong. No one can say that the torture of children is excusable."
Buras Nhalathi, 17, told the conference that he can barely see after being tied to a pole with bright lights shined in his eyes during prolonged police interrogation. Nodia Moitse, now 22, carries the physical and psychological scars of torture and detention in solitary confinement three years ago. And Willem Modibedi, 11, can barely describe the horrors of his two months in detention last year.
"This conference has made people come in contact with the misery and pain our people are going through," the Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, commented. "We just hope that those people who are not prepared to put pressure on South Africa would feel ashamed about supporting a regime that brutalizes and murders its children."
The planned campaign to protect children in South Africa will be aimed not only at ensuring their rights, Huddleston said, but also at increasing international pressure on the country's white-led minority government to end apartheid and accept a political system based on one person, one vote.
"The deliberate and systematic targeting of children by the armed agents of the regime puts apartheid South Africa beyond the pale of civilized society," conference participants said in a declaration Saturday. "It exposes the political and moral bankruptcy of a system bent on destroying any form of opposition. Such a form of government is totally illegitimate."
By using the accounts by children, some not yet in their teens, of how they were beaten, tortured with electric shocks, kept in solitary confinement for months and maimed by police action, the anti-apartheid movement hopes to refuel the drive for comprehensive and mandatory economic sanctions on the country, conference participants said.
"Western governments can now no longer claim ignorance of what is being done to children in South Africa," Glenys Kinnock, wife of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, told the conference. "The consistency and the frequency of the evidence, the wealth of detail and the sheer number of examples make the case an overwhelming and compelling one. It is our responsibility now to help to present that case to the world and to make that government act."
The American, British and West German governments, which have opposed sanctions on South Africa as hindering reform there, would be the principal focus of the new campaign, conference participants said.
"We shall tell those who want to delay further just what the consequences of their delay will be," Kinnock said, adding that the cases of Nthabiseng and the other children who spoke here will be cited.
The Pretoria government, recognizing its vulnerability on this issue, said last week that in recent months it has released all but 115 of an estimated 10,000 youths under 18 years old who had been detained without charge under the state of emergency, and that the 115 still held are suspected of serious crimes, including murder, or have been involved in recent violence.
The Detainees' Parents Support Committee, which closely monitors detentions under South Africa's security laws, nevertheless estimates that about 400 of the 1,800 people it believes are still held without charge under the emergency regulations are age 18 and younger.
Adriaan Vlok, Pretoria's minister of law and order, dismissed the conference's charges in advance as "wild claims" and accused civil rights groups monitoring detentions of "serving the enemies of South Africa."
At the urging of Ambassador Piet Koornhof in Washington and other South African diplomats, the government began releasing the youths in large numbers in April when this conference was first planned, and senior officials in Pretoria had thought that the issue was defused.
The first test of the new campaign will come when Commonwealth leaders meet in Vancouver, Canada, next month, with Britain resolved to oppose any further sanctions and with the anti-apartheid movement planning a protest meeting in Vancouver just before the summit.