Hunger Strike Ends; S. Africa Regime Yields : Government Pledges to Free a ‘Substantial Number’ of Detainees

Times Staff Writer

A hunger strike by hundreds of black political detainees, which stretched 24 days and left nearly two dozen people hospitalized, ended Thursday as the government promised to release “a substantial number” of detainees within the next two weeks.

The government assurance came during an extraordinary 2 1/2-hour meeting in Cape Town between Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok and the country’s leading anti-apartheid clerics, Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak.

It appeared to end the protest, the largest and most effective hunger strike in South African history, and to defuse what had become a growing political crisis for the white minority-led government.


“I don’t want to speak of victory, but it does give our people hope,” Tutu told a news conference. “It shows that success can be achieved by negotiation and nonviolent action.”

The 250 to 300 hunger strikers, held without charge for as long as 2 1/2 years, were demanding that the government end its policy of detentions and either free its 1,000 detainees or bring them into court.

Under emergency decree, Vlok may arrest and detain anyone he considers a threat to public safety, without filing formal charges. About 500 activists have been held for more than a year, and half of those have been in detention for more than two years. None of the estimated 32,000 detentions since June, 1986, has been successfully overturned in court.

Although Vlok had declared last week that the government would not be blackmailed into freeing anyone, he began an unusual round of meetings this week with the lawyers and relatives of detainees. During those sessions, he said he was reconsidering each detainee’s case. Civil rights leaders said it became increasingly clear that Vlok wanted to end the strike peacefully.

The clerics said Vlok agreed with them that “the death of a hunger striker would have consequences too ghastly to contemplate.”

20 Strikers Hospitalized

About 20 strikers have been hospitalized and a few are being fed intravenously with their permission. Although none are in critical condition, doctors said, all had reached the stage after which permanent organ damage was possible.


The government got some breathing room Thursday when 170 hunger strikers at Diepkloof Prison outside Johannesburg, heeding a call Wednesday by the South African Council of Churches, announced that they were ending their fast and would eat breakfast. It was not clear when about 100 strikers in a Port Elizabeth prison, who began fasting about 10 days ago, would resume eating.

“Our action has not been fruitless,” the Diepkloof strikers said in a statement read by their lawyers. “An important victory has been won: We have succeeded in highlighting the desperate plight of detainees.”

Then, at the meeting with Tutu and Boesak, Vlok disclosed that while he was still reviewing the detainees’ cases he planned to release “a substantial number.”

Number Uncertain

No one knows for sure how many detainees will be freed.

“It’s difficult to give a number,” Brig. Leon Mellet, Vlok’s chief spokesman, said on state-run television Thursday night. “But the first releases could be as early as tomorrow (Friday).”

Kathleen Satchwell, a lawyer representing detainees, said Thursday that she had received “indications from the minister that perhaps the majority of them will be released.”

Even if many are freed, most will likely be served with restriction orders prohibiting them from political activities, addressing large groups and being interviewed by journalists. Several hundred detainees released in the past year now live under such restrictions.


‘Far-Reaching Implications’

But the compromise fashioned to end the hunger strike could have far-reaching implications for the government and its policy of detention without trial, which has been the backbone of South Africa’s successful effort to cool township violence and control what it calls the “revolutionary climate” in the country.

By releasing detainees now, the government will be acknowledging that a large number of the people it has detained for months and even years no longer need to be in jail to keep the country safe. Human rights organizations have long contended that the government uses detentions to silence its critics and that many of those now in detention belong to organizations committed to nonviolent opposition to apartheid.

Although the hunger strike fell short of its ultimate aim--the abolition of detentions altogether--anti-apartheid groups say they are encouraged by the result. If the government releases hundreds of detainees, as now appears likely, it will be proof, as Oliver Tambo, president of the outlawed African National Congress, said Thursday, that the hunger strike was “a jolly good idea.”

“This strike showed that the government doesn’t have absolute power over anyone,” said Sheena Duncan, a leader in the women’s anti-apartheid group, Black Sash. “It put the government on the defensive.”