500 Arrested During Protest in Cape Town

Times Staff Writer

Amid an escalating campaign to defy apartheid in South Africa, throngs of demonstrators were chased down Cape Town streets Saturday by police using whips, tear gas and water cannons spraying purple dye. More than 500 people, including 52 journalists, were arrested.

The protesters, including the Rev. Allan Boesak, an implacable anti-apartheid leader and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, were preparing to march on Parliament to protest next Wednesday’s countrywide elections, from which the nation’s 26-million black majority is excluded.

The march was part of a monthlong nationwide defiance campaign, organized by the Mass Democratic Movement, that has swelled into the most sustained anti-apartheid protest since the government suspended many civil rights in 1986 under emergency decree.


More than 1,000 activists, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, have been arrested in recent days as they attempted to stage anti-government protests, which are illegal under emergency rules. Most demonstrators have been released the same day, but police have begun quietly rounding up and detaining, without charge, dozens of movement leaders.

The trouble in Cape Town began early on a drizzly winter day in the Southern Hemisphere when about 700 black, white and mixed-race demonstrators tried to assemble in Green Market Square for the march on Parliament. Cape Town and the black and mixed-race townships nearby have been a hotbed of anti-government political activity since the defiance campaign began Aug. 2.

The city center was clogged with riot police as well as shoppers and tourists when the demonstrators entered the square. Police gave the marchers 10 minutes to disperse, but the protesters sat down on the pavement and began clapping and singing.

Then police drove two water cannon trucks into the square and began spraying demonstrators with purple dye. Shoppers and activists fled in panic, and some fell to the pavement.

Activists Grabs Nozzle

One activist jumped onto a truck, grabbed the water cannon nozzle and aimed it upward away from the crowd, spewing purple dye on an office building containing the Cape province offices of the ruling white National Party. After a scuffle with a police officer, he escaped into the crowd.

Then tear gas was fired, and police, on foot and in yellow vehicles, chased the marchers, grabbing anyone stained with purple dye. Police occasionally use purple dye to identify participants in protests, and informants often report dye-stained people days later.


Dozens were injured, but apparently none seriously. Most of those arrested, including Boesak, were later released. Police said they are considering charging them with participating in an illegal gathering.

Among those arrested in the sweep was a West German tourist, several bystanders and a camera crew for state-run television. Reporters at the scene said police also arrested several medical workers treating injured protesters at a mobile clinic.

‘Right Is on Our Side’

Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, condemned the police action.

“All moral right is on our side,” he told about 2,000 people who gathered in his Anglican church nearby. “We have committed ourselves to this struggle until it is won. We shall be free . . . despite this type of action from those who refuse to hand over power.”

Organizers have planned dozens of acts of civil disobedience for the days before and after the parliamentary elections, which will again install a white minority-led government. A worker stay-away has been called for Tuesday and Wednesday, selective consumer boycotts are planned for the month and black labor unions are planning sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience in the workplace.

So far, tens of thousands of black activists have participated in the defiance campaign by, among other things, attempting to picnic on whites-only beaches, seeking medical care at whites-only hospitals and trying to hold peaceful public rallies and marches to express their political dissent.

Doubts About Reform

The crackdown on the latest civil disobedience has allowed the government to show its conservative opponents in the election that it can maintain order. But it also has created doubts internationally about acting President Frederik W. de Klerk’s much-heralded pledge to begin dismantling apartheid and start negotiating with the black majority after the election, which he and his party are expected to win easily.


The government has tried to keep the recent unrest off worldwide television screens, and it warned foreign media Friday that photographs of unrest violate the emergency regulations. Among the local and foreign journalists arrested Saturday were camera crews for major American television networks. A CBS-TV cameraman was arrested after police made a door-to-door search of a downtown hotel.

A police spokesman said the journalists were released but eventually may be charged with violating emergency regulations, which prohibit journalists from being present at the scene of unrest.

“We cannot allow these propaganda efforts by the Mass Democratic Movement to tarnish South Africa’s image abroad, where a destructive view is being created by totally slanted reports emanating from South Africa,” the Law and Order Ministry’s chief spokesman, Brig. Leon Mellet, said.