PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa — The South African government Saturday prevented Govan Mbeki, the recently freed chairman of the outlawed African National Congress, from addressing a rally here that was expected to draw more than 50,000 people.
Brig. Ernest Schnetler, the regional police commissioner, used his sweeping powers under South Africa's state of emergency to prohibit the church-sponsored rally, saying he feared it would add to civil unrest. A Supreme Court judge upheld the police order.
This reversed an earlier decision by Port Elizabeth's chief magistrate to permit Mbeki, who was released earlier this month after 24 years in prison, to address the rally and thus to resume full political activities.
The government move put into considerable doubt the future of its political initiative in freeing Mbeki, 77, who was serving a life sentence with other ANC leaders for a campaign of sabotage intended to overthrow minority-white rule.
While top officials in President Pieter W. Botha's government never expected Mbeki to endorse the government's proposals for limited reforms or agree to its concept of political "power sharing," they did express hope that his release would be interpreted as evidence of their willingness to negotiate and that this might lead to subsequent steps, including freedom for other ANC leaders and eventual negotiations on a new constitution.
The police order, which informed officials said had Botha's personal backing, exposed a deep rift in the Cabinet and the ruling National Party hierarchy over the question of negotiations and the role of the ANC.
"Again, the government has given in to its fear and lack of courage," the 750,000-member Congress of South Africa Trade Unions said after the court decision upholding the police order. "The banning of the rally is a backward step. This kind of vacillation always leads to the undoing of any positive action by the government.
"The release of Mbeki has been an important move in the government's strategy to ease itself out of an all-around crisis, Mbeki's release has been hailed internationally as a sign that the release of other political prisoners, particularly Nelson Mandela, was imminent and that the government was preparing the country for the unbanning of the ANC," the labor organization said.
The Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, a co-sponsor of the rally described as "a service of thanksgiving and welcome," said the government had apparently given police the power to overrule the country's courts and that Mbeki's release appears now to be a trick rather than a truly conciliatory gesture.
Mbeki said he was "deeply disappointed" that he had been unable to address the four-hour meeting, whose sponsors had accepted a series of restrictions imposed by the chief magistrate when he granted permission Thursday.
In the speech he was forbidden to deliver, Mbeki left little doubt of his undiminished support for the ANC and its armed struggle against continued white rule here, but he carefully stopped short of the legal barrier that prohibits open advocacy of ANC views.
"My incarceration and release would have little meaning if this long nightmare of apartheid and injustice and the alienation of brother from brother is allowed to perpetuate itself," he said, reading his speech to journalists at a hotel here.
He then asked his supporters--he remains a tremendously popular figure in Port Elizabeth and eastern Cape province despite his years in prison--to "dedicate yourselves to the creation of a democratic, non-racial, unfragmented South Africa for which so many have suffered and died and for which so many have yearned and grieved."
While a spokesman for Schnetler said the police had always been opposed to the rally, other officers explained that he had acted after security police received "urgent intelligence" that busloads of blacks were coming from throughout the country and that the rally might double in size to more than 100,000. The rally was to have been held in a sports stadium in Zwide, one of Port Elizabeth's black townships.
Lt. Gen. Johann van der Merwe, chief of the South African security police, told journalists at a briefing that police saw the rally as "a deliberate attempt by the ANC to force the government to lift the ban on the ANC," which was outlawed in 1960.
"The way it was arranged obviously indicated that it was not intended as a welcoming for Mr. Mbeki but a pretext for an ANC gathering," Van der Merwe said at a police training camp at Walvis Bay. He said Mbeki's speech would also have added to the "revolutionary climate" in the country and increased support for the ANC, the South African Communist Party and their 26-year insurgency against white rule.
Had Mbeki been allowed to speak, the meeting would have been the first political rally in 27 years in South Africa addressed by an ANC leader with official permission from the government.