CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Tens of thousands of black activists are waging a concerted protest against South Africa's white authorities in a campaign that has shaken assumptions about gradual reform and Friday brought the brief arrest of this country's most prominent critic of apartheid, Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.
Tutu and his wife, Leah, were among hundreds arrested countrywide. They were hauled away for protesting police beatings of clerics at a Cape Town demonstration earlier in the day. They and 34 other marchers were held three hours and released. No charges were filed but police said they are considering charges of holding an illegal march.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler demanded a full report from Pretoria and urged the government "to permit the peaceful expression of political dissent."
While Tutu and other prominent church leaders and activists were making highly visible protests, Hilda Ndude, a young working mother of five took on government forces a few nights ago simply by waiting until after 7 o'clock to return to her home in nearby Guguletu.
Broke 'Restriction Order'
The police hauled Ndude into the Guguletu station and charged her with breaking her "restriction order," which puts her and about 500 other political activists under nighttime house arrest.
Two nights later, Ndude did it again. This time she and her children spent the night in jail, sleeping on the floor.
"When people are fighting injustice, I have to be part and parcel," Ndude, now out on bail, said the other day, violating the restriction order again by granting an interview.
"I take into account that I am a bread-winner," she added as she snapped a pair of overalls onto her 4-year-old daughter. "But if I take a back seat, who's going to fight for us?"
For nearly a month, Ndude and the other activists have used the principles of civil disobedience to tap what has turned out to be a brimming reservoir of militancy among the disfranchised black majority.
Police have whipped, tear-gassed and arrested activists for marching and singing freedom songs in Cape Town streets, for trying to board whites-only buses in Pretoria, for picnicking at whites-only beaches, for asking for education at whites-only schools, for picketing the visit of an international rugby team, for holding outdoor rallies and for openly defying their restriction orders.
The defiance campaign, the largest anti-apartheid protest in more than three years, has begun to undermine, at home and abroad, government assertions that "apartheid is dead" and cast doubt on new acting President Frederik W. de Klerk's ability to negotiate peaceful change in South Africa.
"You cannot expect to have productive negotiations with the same people you sjamboked (whipped) and tear-gassed the previous day," says Jan van Eck, who monitors the campaign for the liberal white Democratic Party.
The most violent clashes with police have occurred in Guguletu and other townships near Cape Town, where youths attacked by police have abandoned passive resistance and thrown rocks at police vehicles.
Tutu has criticized the authorities' "incredible impatience and eagerness to use the full range of their arsenal."
"It's going to be a miracle if many of our children are not killed," said Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate. A policeman and a truck driver have died in incidents related to the defiance campaign.
The campaign, organized by a loose affiliation of anti-apartheid groups under the banner of the Mass Democratic Movement, was designed as a way to embarrass the government in the weeks before next Wednesday's general elections by calling attention to the remaining vestiges of racial segregation and repressive emergency laws that prohibit even peaceful anti-government protests.
De Klerk, who is expected to win a five-year term as president, has impressed foreign governments with his pledge to "break the cycle of violence" in South Africa by opening up a dialogue with black leaders. But leaders of the black majority, which has no vote in those elections, have little faith in De Klerk's promises.
"The deceptive talk about reforms cannot entice the people to abandon the democratic struggle," said the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), the principal guerrilla group fighting white minority-led rule.
The government contends that the defiance leaders hope to trigger violence and make the country ungovernable. But others see the campaign as a product of years of frustration.
'A Psychological Moment'
"There comes a psychological moment in the history of a people when they must stand up or they will lose their dignity as human beings," said Charles Villa-Vicencio, a professor of religious studies at the University of Cape Town. "That moment has come inside South Africa."
It began Aug. 2, when 270 sick blacks showed up at whites-only hospitals nationwide and were treated without incident. A few days later, a Tutu-led march through downtown Cape Town was halted peacefully by a contingent of unarmed policewomen, a move that Tutu admitted was "a small feather in (the government's) cap."
But confrontations quickly grew more heated.
In recent days, police have broken up meetings at universities with rubber bullets and tear gas, stopped marches on white schools that were part of an "all schools for all people" campaign, and arrested 11 blacks who tried to board whites-only buses in Pretoria. Those would-be bus riders were charged with conspiracy.
20 Clerics Stage Protest
Tutu's demonstration Friday followed the whipping and clubbing by riot police of a racially mixed group of 20 clerics staging a protest at police headquarters. Police stopped Tutu's group near his cathedral, a center of anti-apartheid dissent in Cape Town, and gave them five minutes to leave. When they refused, the robed cleric and other leading figures in the defiance campaign were taken into custody.
"We are interested in freedom and we are going to defy until freedom comes," Tutu said after his release. "It is important for the people to know that 'legal' is not the same thing as 'morally right.' "
Tutu, 57, has been a key figure in the defiance campaign, but the authorities, wary of his international reputation, had avoided arresting him. He was last held briefly by the police in 1988, when he led a protest against restrictions placed on anti-apartheid organizations.
On Wednesday in Cape Town, about 200 women, including Leah Tutu, holding placards in Green Market Square were ordered to disperse. The women refused and sat down on the sidewalk as a mostly white crowd watched and applauded. The women were arrested, charged and released later that night.
The most violent confrontations with police, though, have occurred in black townships, far from the eyes of white office workers downtown. Police have broken up dozens of demonstrations by black and mixed-race students and faculty at the University of the Western Cape, for instance, and classes have been suspended until after the election.
University officials have asked the police to stay off the campus, saying the police presence provokes students. But the police have refused and students have stoned police cars and set up barricades of burning tires throughout nearby Cape Town townships. Dozens of students and a few faculty members have been injured and arrested in the melees.
Tutu has asked township youths not to "undermine a noble struggle by being provoked into acts of violence."
"We don't go to protests with the intention of throwing stones," said Sydney Gwynne, a student leader. "But when the police start shooting at you, and you didn't do anything wrong, sometimes you react."
Human rights groups estimate that at least 150 leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement have been detained without charge since the resistance campaign began. Some are on hunger strikes, the form of protest that pressured the government earlier this year to free nearly 1,000 activists it had detained for up to 2 1/2 years.
Several dozen other leaders, such as Ndude, have been charged with ignoring restriction orders and face a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and an $8,000 fine. Two dozen anti-apartheid organizations and hundreds of leaders have been effectively silenced by those orders, and many now have declared themselves "unrestricted."
Ndude was restricted last year after five weeks in detention without charge. She is prohibited from leaving her house between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., being with 10 or more people at a time, writing for publication, being interviewed or leaving the Cape Town area.
"We don't take the restrictions seriously any more," said Ndude, 34, sitting on a plastic-covered sofa in her small living room. Ndude is a local leader of the United Democratic Front, which itself has been shut down by restriction.
Her husband was arrested in 1987 and is on trial with 13 others for terrorism. She supports their five children, ages 4 to 13, by working as a secretary for a church-sponsored exchange program.
After Ndude and other activists declared themselves unrestricted at a meeting two weeks ago, many were visited by the police. Officers showed up at Ndude's house the next night, staying until she arrived three hours past her curfew. She took her children with her to the police station, where she was booked and released on bail.
Two nights later, Ndude again showed up at about 10 p.m., and four police officers knocked on the door. They said she had three minutes to get ready. She balked, saying she had to help her children out of the bath, and one of the officers grabbed her.
"You can't mishandle me in front of my kids," she said, touching off a shouting match between the police and her children and friends.
"Leave Mama alone!" a child shouted and two of her smallest children pummeled a policeman's legs. The officer picked them up by their shirts, "holding them like puppy dogs," Ndude remembered.
Ndude took the children with her, but this time she was not released right away. The whole family spent the night in a small cell and appeared the next day in a courtroom packed with supporters.
Ndude was freed on $100 bail, and agreed to abide by her curfew until the trial. But she says she'll continue defying her other restrictions and she has warned her children to be prepared the next time the powerful arm of the South African state knocks on the door.
"They know very well that when the Boer (white Afrikaner) comes in and says he's taking us, they have to be ready," she said. "I tell them, 'Get your track suits on because you're coming with me.' "Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times