3 Detainees in S. Africa Flee to U.S. Consulate

Times Staff Writer

Three of South Africa’s most important political detainees escaped Tuesday from a Johannesburg hospital and found refuge a mile away in the U.S. Consulate, setting up one of the stickiest diplomatic dilemmas here for the United States in many months.

The State Department said it had been in frequent contact with the men before they were detained without charge more than a year ago and that “we . . . hold them in high regard.”

No U.S. Time Limit

“We will not press them to leave against their will,” said William Zavis, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, reading a State Department statement. In Washington, a State Department official noted that there was no time limit on that offer.


Zavis noted that the United States does not offer political asylum at its diplomatic missions. But Krish Naidoo, the detainees’ attorney, said they sought freedom from detention, not asylum in the United States.

Two of the men were senior officials in the banned United Democratic Front, a 2-million-member anti-apartheid coalition: Murphy Morobe, publicity secretary, who is black, and Mohammed Valli Moosa, acting general secretary, who is an Indian. The third, Vusi Khanyile, a black, was chairman of the banned National Education Crisis Committee.

They had been held at Diepkloof Prison, in the sprawling township of Soweto outside Johannesburg. They escaped while visiting Johannesburg General Hospital for physiotherapy treatment, according to Brig. Leon Mellet, spokesman for the Ministry of Law and Order.

The three showed up at the U.S. Consulate, situated in an office building above a midtown shopping mall, and asked to talk with U.S. Ambassador Edward J. Perkins. They were allowed in, and discussions began among the men, their lawyer and U.S. officials. Later, couches and blankets were brought to the 11th-floor office for the night.


In its statement, the State Department pointed out that under international law, consular premises “are inviolable and host government officials may not enter them without consent.”

Aside from confirming the escape, South Africans declined to comment. Government officials did not say how the men managed to escape or get across town to the consulate amid the crush of lunchtime crowds.

The incident was seen as an embarrassment for the South African government, which has detained 32,000 people without charge since the state of emergency was declared in June, 1986. About 18,000 of the detainees have been held for at least a month and 1,000 for more than a year, civil rights groups estimate.

Although the government does not release complete figures on detentions, it said recently that 802 of the people currently in detention have been held for at least a month.


The incident puts the U.S. government in an awkward position here. U.S. diplomats have generally avoided public confrontation with the South African government, though they have adopted a policy of maintaining contact with anti-apartheid leaders and exerting subtle, behind-the-scenes pressure on Pretoria.

A Dilemma for U.S.

If the U.S. government turns the men out, it is certain to come under intense criticism from anti-apartheid activists and lose credibility here and abroad. But if it continues to allow the men refuge, against the expected protestations of South Africa’s white minority-led government, the already tenuous relations between Pretoria and Washington are likely to deteriorate further.

None of South Africa’s security forces were in evidence late Tuesday at the consulate, which is routinely protected by a private guard service. The consulate, where visa applications are processed, is one of three American offices in South Africa.


Morobe, 32, and Valli Moosa, 34, went underground shortly after President Pieter W. Botha declared the state of emergency in 1986. While thousands of political activists were being arrested and held without charge, the men organized several clandestine news conferences that proved embarrassing to the government. They avoided arrest for months, sometimes using disguises to get through police roadblocks. They were detained in July, 1987.

Detention Without Charge

The South African government has used its powers of detention without charge, granted under the emergency decree, to hold most of the leadership of the UDF, a nationwide coalition of about 750 anti-apartheid groups. Other UDF officials have been charged with treason or subjected to restrictive orders that amount to house arrest.

Virtually all the top leaders of the National Education Crisis Committee have been detained. Khanyile, 37, the chairman, was arrested in December, 1986, but never charged.


The education committee was a coalition of parent, teacher and student groups seeking to give blacks more control over curriculum and policies in their schools. It was instrumental in calling off classroom boycotts that spread nationwide in 1985-86.

But the government outlawed a later campaign by the group for “people’s education,” which was seen as a way to organize youngsters against South Africa’s policies of racial separation.

The United Democratic Front and the crisis committee are among 19 organizations whose activities have been banned since February.

Political activists have taken refuge at diplomatic missions in South Africa twice in recent years.


In 1984, six UDF officials sought protection at the British Consulate in Durban. After several weeks there, the men emerged to face charges of high treason, which were later dropped.

A Dutchman, Klaus de Jonge, was arrested in 1985 on charges of aiding the outlawed African National Congress. He spent two years in the Dutch Embassy before the South African government allowed him to return to the Netherlands last year.