PRETORIA, South Africa — After the longest and one of the most important political trials in South African history, four leading black activists were convicted of treason Friday by a judge who ruled that the nation's largest anti-apartheid group, the United Democratic Front, plotted to violently overthrow the white minority-led government.
Judge Kees van Dijkhorst, after hearing more than three years of testimony in the case, said the UDF is a revolutionary organization whose protests led directly and intentionally to bloody township riots that swept the country in 1984-86. He said three of the four men, top leaders in the front, constituted the "conspiratorial core inside the UDF apple."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 7, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, an article published Nov. 19 about the conviction of four black South African activists on treason charges misstated the crime of which black nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela was found guilty 24 years ago. Mandela was convicted of sabotage.
Seven other activists were convicted on a charge of terrorism in those riots, and eight defendants were acquitted on all counts in the decision, which was handed down in Court C of the Palace of Justice--the same high-ceilinged room where black nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela was found guilty of treason 24 years ago and ordered jailed for life.
The 19 defendants, including churchmen, teachers and community leaders from the Vaal River region south of Johannesburg, had been charged with treason, subversion, terrorism and murder.
But the case gained prominence as a trial of the 2-million-member UDF itself and, by implication, many other government opponents who consider themselves part of the freedom struggle. The front, a multiracial coalition of more than 600 anti-apartheid groups, was formed in 1983 to oppose a new constitution that excluded the black majority from Parliament.
The defendants said the front was trying, by nonviolent means of protest, to give blacks a vote in national affairs and force an end to apartheid and white privilege.
The government, however, contended that the front was the internal wing of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and that the front's idea of a freedom struggle was a "war of conquest" designed to unlawfully seize power from the state.
Judge Van Dijkhorst agreed with the state that the front had declared war on the government and that its top leaders were guided by the ANC, the principal guerrilla group fighting white rule in South Africa.
The decision was seen as yet another severe blow to the front, which since February has been effectively banned by the government under state-of-emergency regulations. Most of the front's leaders have been detained or served with restriction orders barring them from any political work.
Many in the packed courtroom gasped when the judge ended a four-day reading of his 1,521-page trial summary by announcing the treason convictions. Outside the courthouse in central Pretoria, a subdued crowd of 200 friends and supporters stood silently in the light rain.
U.S. Ambassador Edward J. Perkins and other Western diplomats, as well as leading anti-apartheid figures such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, watched from the courtroom's public gallery Friday.
"If this is treason, then I am guilty of treason," Tutu said later. He added that he knew those found guilty as "gentle, rational people who, in a democratic society, would be regarded as civic-minded, public-spirited leaders."
Helen Suzman, the 71-year-old matriarch of the liberal white Progressive Federal Party, said the verdict indicated that "the division between what is lawful protest and treason in South Africa is narrowing."
The judge set a sentencing hearing for early December; treason can carry the death penalty in South Africa. The defense team indicated that it would seek permission to appeal.
The three front leaders convicted of treason already have spent more than three years in jail without bail. They are Popo Molefe, 36, the front's national secretary; Patrick (Terror) Lekota, 40, chief spokesman, and Moses Chikane, 40, a front official in Transvaal province. (Lekota's nickname was earned on the soccer field.)
Also convicted of treason was the Rev. Thomas Manthatha, a community leader in the Vaal region, where the first wave of unrest flared four years ago.
"There is nothing we did that we are ashamed of," Lekota said shortly before he was led back to prison after saying goodby to his wife and three children. "The only people to be ashamed are the people who rule this country."
Judge Van Dijkhorst said he held the UDF leaders responsible for the organization's actions. Many people had joined the front, he said, because of their disenchantment with the government, not knowing that "their aspirations for peaceful change would lead to revolt."
The judge described all three of the front's leaders as intelligent, articulate men who had skillfully incited the black masses to violence. Lekota, the judge said, "learned his lessons well at Mandela's knee," referring to the six years that Lekota served in the Robben Island prison with the ANC leader in the 1970s.