4th S. African Takes Refuge in U.S. Consulate
A fourth South African has escaped from detention and was holed up Thursday with three other runaway anti-apartheid activists at the U.S. Consulate, increasing the pressure on both Pretoria and Washington to end a 10-day-old standoff.
Clifford Ngcobo, 30, who had been held without charge for six months, slipped away from police guards at a hospital Wednesday and fled to the downtown offices of the consulate, where he joined three other escaped detainees.
The South African government issued an arrest warrant for Ngcobo on Thursday, on charges of illegal possession of firearms and intimidation. Government officials sought to portray Ngcobo as “an ordinary accused in a criminal case,” in the words of the police.
But later in the day, according to Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha, the arrest warrant was suspended pending a decision by the attorney general on whether to bring the charges against Ngcobo. Botha also said he had told U.S. Ambassador Edward J. Perkins that if Ngcobo is charged, it will be with firearms possession only.
By portraying Ngcobo as “an ordinary accused in a criminal case,” the government apparently was seeking to defuse a growing diplomatic row.
If charged with a crime, Ngcobo would cease to be a political detainee avoiding imprisonment without charge and become an accused criminal seeking American protection from a bona fide charge. Although American embassies have occasionally provided temporary refuge for political figures, they rarely, if ever, harbor people charged with criminal offenses.
Political analysts think that charging Ngcobo would effectively separate his case from that of the three prominent detainees who have taken refuge in the consulate, and would put pressure on the United States to surrender him to the South African authorities.
He Sued Police
The U.S. government declined to comment Thursday, except to confirm Ngcobo’s presence in the consulate. Ngcobo, who had been active in the now-banned Soweto Civic Assn., filed a civil suit several months ago that accused the police of assaulting him the night he was detained, his lawyers said.
The three other former detainees in the 11th-floor consulate offices are Murphy Morobe, acting publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front, the anti-apartheid coalition; Vusi Khanyile, chairman of the National Education Crisis Committee, and Valli Moosa, the UDF’s acting general secretary.
They have been living in three rooms of the consulate since Sept. 13, when they escaped from the same hospital that Ngcobo fled.
All three had been held for 14 months without trial, under the state of emergency. After they escaped, the government announced that it was planning to free them anyway, and it offered to let them leave the consulate without fear of being re-detained or having their movements restricted.
But leading anti-apartheid leaders who have visited the three say the men have no faith in Pretoria’s promises. U.S. officials have said they will not force the three to leave.
The South African government has mocked them as failed martyrs. Foreign Minister Botha said the government was no longer interested in the three, whom he described as “merely guests of the American consul general and the American taxpayer.”
The escapes have highlighted the government’s much-criticized policy of detaining anti-apartheid activists under emergency regulations. About 30,000 people have been detained for varying periods since the state of emergency was declared in June, 1986.
In recent days, the government has renewed its crackdown on black activists, detaining at least 21 people and imposing severe restrictions on at least four others who were leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest black labor federation. The restriction orders, which expire in two weeks, prevent them from leaving their hometowns or participating in political activities.
The sweep was apparently aimed at undermining an anti-apartheid unity conference set for this weekend in Cape Town. The government announced late Thursday that it was banning the meeting, under emergency regulations, as a threat to public order.
Among those detained in the past few days was Trevor Manuel, a regional secretary of the UDF, who spent nearly two years in detention before being released last July.
Johannesburg Bureau Assistant Mike Cadman assisted in the preparation of this article.