Tougher S. Africa Police Powers Proposed
President Pieter W. Botha asked the South African Parliament here on Wednesday to approve legislation giving the minister of law and order sweeping new powers, approaching martial law authority, to deal with the country’s continuing civil strife.
The draft legislation would permit the official, Louis le Grange, to declare any part of the country an “unrest area,” whether there had been rioting or just the threat of it, and then to take whatever actions there he regards as necessary to restore order.
The effect of the legislation would be to allow Le Grange to declare a “state of emergency"--much like that imposed by Botha in large areas of the country for more than seven months last year but without high political cost.
Ability to Limit Rights
The minister, and under him the police commissioner and his deputies, would, for example, be able as a result of the proposed legislation to suspend civil rights, to detain people without charges or trial, to impose curfews, to censor the press, to make searches without warrants, to close businesses and seize property.
The minister would also be authorized to extend such regulations outside the “unrest area” if he believed it would help restore order.
Neither the validity of the original declaration by Le Grange or his successor, nor of any subsequent regulations, could be challenged in court. Only South Africa’s president or Parliament, if it is in session, would be able to overrule the Cabinet minister.
Opposition groups quickly objected both to the concentration of so much power in Le Grange’s hands and the sweeping nature of that authority.
Proposal’s Approval Seen
But Botha, speaking to the House of Delegates, the Asian chamber of South Africa’s tricameral legislature, said that in view of the continuing and widespread unrest “the government has no choice but to ask Parliament to extend the powers of the police.”
Botha’s National Party has effective control of Parliament, ensuring passage of the legislation.
Since the state of emergency was lifted March 7, “black-on-black violence has increased alarmingly,” Botha said, noting that in recent weeks about half of the unrest victims have been blacks killed by other blacks. With a total of 171 reported deaths, March was the bloodiest month since South African racial violence broke out in intense form in September, 1984.
As Botha spoke, rioting continued in the black township of Alexandra, on the northeastern outskirts of Johannesburg. Residents reported that eight people had been killed overnight Tuesday and Wednesday, but police could only confirm two of the deaths--one when police fired on a mob they said was preparing to throw firebombs at them and the other, a charred body found in a burned-out house.
A white policeman was shot in the stomach, apparently with an AK-47 assault rifle, as a crowd of more than 10,000 tried to march on the local police station. The wounded officer was reported in serious but stable condition Wednesday evening.
Dozens of houses and cars were burned in Alexandra through the day as black militants came under attack from other blacks, apparently in a dispute over political leadership of the community.
Fears of Black Sash
Black Sash, a civil rights-monitoring group, warned that “if the government gives the minister of law and order the sweeping powers in this bill, then South Africa will at last be openly declaring itself to be an authoritarian state.”
Denis Davis, a University of Cape Town law professor and a member of the executive board of the Civil Rights League, said, “The government is intent on suppressing opposition and is allowing Louis le Grange to be the supreme legislator for any area of the country which he chooses.”
Murphy Morobe, a spokesman for the United Democratic Front coalition of anti-apartheid groups, said that “the bill places further powers in the hands of one known for capriciousness and disrespect for human life.”
And Helen Suzman, a longtime member of Parliament from the Progressive Federal Party, described the bill as a “sad reflection” on the Botha government’s approach to the country’s deepening crisis.
Such arguments apparently did not impress Botha as he debated his government’s handling of the continuing civil unrest with members of the House of Delegates and urged that the country’s security legislation be further strengthened, not relaxed as they had proposed.
Botha also reaffirmed his insistence that Nelson Mandela, jailed leader of the African National Congress, and other political prisoners renounce violence in their struggle against apartheid before they can be considered for release. They refuse to give such commitments, seeing them as a betrayal of the cause for which they have fought for decades.
“Say I release Mandela tomorrow, and (he) immediately starts violence again,” Botha said. “Must we arrest him again? That’s the very point. Knowing he will start up with violence again, must I, as a responsible head of state, release him so he can carry on with his violence and then arrest him? What a nonsensical argument!”
The government also introduced promised legislation Wednesday ending the “pass law” system used to restrict blacks from moving to urban areas, removing one of the most hated elements of the apartheid system.
Noting that 34 legislative acts and proclamations, some going back more than 60 years, would be repealed or substantially amended, J. Christiaan Heunis, minister of constitutional development and planning, declared, “I firmly believe that in one fell swoop we have further demonstrated our commitment to planned reform.”
Blacks will now be able to move freely from rural to urban areas, Heunis said, and will no longer be required to carry “reference books” showing that they have permission to work and live there.