In the last major treason trial arising out of South Africa's bloody unrest of 1984-86, union leader Moses Mayekiso and four other black men were acquitted Monday of attempting to overthrow the state by seizing control of Alexandra township.
Mayekiso, 40, described the verdict as a victory for the "struggle for a better society" in South Africa, and he vowed to pick up where he had left off before his June, 1986, arrest, rebuilding the civic organizations for which he had been put on trial.
The packed gallery in the downtown Johannesburg courtroom erupted in cheers and cries of "Viva!" as Justice P. J. van der Walt found the five men innocent of treason, subversion and sedition after an 18-month trial.
Van der Walt, of the Rand Supreme Court, a district court, surprised many anti-apartheid leaders when he rejected the state's contention that the defendants' Alexandra Action Committee was formed to turn the small, dilapidated Johannesburg township into a "liberated zone," as urged by the African National Congress from its headquarters in exile.
Van der Walt said he found no evidence that the Action Committee, of which Mayekiso was chairman, was designed to displace the town council or the police, as the state had alleged. He said a rent boycott, supported by the committee, was intended to protest township conditions and corrupt town councilors rather than to make the township ungovernable.
South Africa has brought charges of high treason against dozens of blacks here since 1986 in what legal experts say is an attempt to criminalize anti-apartheid activity. Only a few of the cases have been successful. Four leading members of the United Democratic Front anti-apartheid coalition were convicted of treason in November by a judge who said the front's liberation struggle is actually a "war of conquest" to seize power from the state.
But, on Monday, Van der Walt seemed to draw the line on labeling anti-apartheid behavior as criminal, ruling that black as well as white South Africans have legitimate grievances and aspirations. And, he said, even when they used language spiced with revolutionary rhetoric, "most citizens were just striving for a better South Africa."
Alexandra, a 21-block-long community of 100,000 only blocks away from Johannesburg's wealthiest, whites-only suburbs, was near anarchy in January, 1986, when the Action Committee was born. The town council had resigned because its members were afraid the voters would kill them. Soldiers patrolled the streets and, in the alleyways, "people's courts" meted out justice.
Let Conditions Deteriorate
Over the years, the government had allowed conditions in Alexandra to deteriorate as it urged people to move to new townships farther outside Johannesburg. The people had balked, and the government eventually promised better living conditions.
But by 1986, conditions had not improved, which "is clearly why the community was dissatisfied and developed a lack of trust in authority," the judge said.
The Action Committee was formed to air the people's grievances, organize neighborhood crime watches, open day-care centers and soup kitchens and upgrade the township's roads, the defense asserted.
The case had drawn international attention because Mayekiso, a former auto worker, was general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. A committee of American lawyers was formed by the United Auto Workers to monitor the case, and international labor organizations paid for the five-person legal defense team, at a cost of several hundred dollars a day.
The other defendants were Paul Tshabalala, 41, Richard Mdakane, 32, Obed Bapela, 31, and Mayekiso's brother, Mzwanele Mayekiso, 25. The men had been held in custody for more than two years before bail was granted last December.