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Seeming Peace Masks Brutal Repression in South Africa

February 28, 1988|LIONEL R. LOUW | Lionel R. Louw, a professor of social work at the University of Cape Town and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is chairperson of the Western Province Council of Churches. and

CAPE TOWN — "It is so quiet, one could imagine that South Africa is peaceful," observed a youth activist in a recent conversation. South Africa's state of emergency now in its third year and newly intensified last week has taken protest action off the front pages of newspapers and prime-time television to create the false impression that there is peace.

Police and national defense forces are harassing and imprisoning innocent people, and committing atrocities of torture and killings. But they are not being held accountable for their deeds.

Detentions without trial continue and many persons are held in solitary confinement. Advocates of nonviolent change have already entered their second year of detention. Some are kept in cells at police stations and in small farm prisons under inhuman conditions for several weeks before being transferred to a maximum security prison. Journalists were even taken into prisons in order to make the public believe that conditions are favorable.

We who have spent time behind those bars know that we did not sleep in beds, could not put our heads on pillows, did not have access to literature and we had no choice but to eat the atrocious food served at inconvenient times such as Saturdaydinner at 2 p.m. We know that the entire experience is designed to dehumanize the inmate and to break the resistance movement.

The stranglehold of the security forces on communities is tightening. All movements and organizational activity are closely monitored. The security forces have taken to doing door-to-door visits, questioning residents about their neighbors and daily activity. Clergy have told how security police visited selective members in their congregations to sow dissension among them.

We live in a society where there is a pervasive security force. It is combined with a concerted propaganda campaign to convince the public that vicious repressive measures are used in the interests of maintaining law and order. Newspapers that told essential truths to contradict the propaganda have been put under severe pressure and several are being threatened with censorship or ultimate closure. Universities can lose their state subsidies if the dictates of the regime are not adhered to and if the campus resistance to the regime does not stop.

In the process of entrenching the racism and exploitation of apartheid, the regime is seeking to co-opt an increasing number of black people. The addition of two houses to parliament to include homeland governments represents such co-option: It creates the illusion of power-sharing without relinquishing control or in any way threatening white minority privilege. Our South African context is characterized by deliberate deceptions; our daily experiences of violent repression contradict the substance of the regime's propaganda.

The international community should not be deluded into accepting this regime as a bulwark against communism or a preserver of Western values. Its illegitimacy as a government must be recognized and acted upon appropriately by President Reagan and Congress.

Its brutalization of opponents nationally and in this region must be admitted, communicated and condemned unequivocally. But words alone have become inadequate. Concerted and consistent action in support of internal resistance now is demanded by our constantly worsening circumstances.

Our vision of a democratic, non-racial, unitary South Africa serves as a source of motivation. The workers' solidarity is evident in the unabated growth of the labor unions. In religious circles, the inherent immorality and injustice of apartheid remain under intensive attack.

The overwhelming support enjoyed by the people's political organizations cannot be countenanced by the regime; consequently, it banned receptions for the released African National Congress prisoner Govan Mbeki.

The pressure is immense. The repression is brutal. The rewards for co-option are lucrative. And yet detainees consistently leave from imprisonment with a greater commitment to continue the struggle for justice and freedom. And yet every time young people go to jail on the sinister charge of public violence, more families are mobilized to continue the struggle toward a society in which youths can once more enjoy security and protection without police repression?

It is in such a spirit that the South African struggle continues. We concur with Martin Luther King Jr.: "Forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life's ambiguities. This requires the exercise of a creative world that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair."

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