WORLD

An exceptional protest

Anti-apartheid groups stage a united march

MARY NEMETH September 25 1989
WORLD

An exceptional protest

Anti-apartheid groups stage a united march

MARY NEMETH September 25 1989

An exceptional protest

SOUTH AFRICA

Anti-apartheid groups stage a united march

They danced, they chanted, and they sang freedom songs. A spirit of jubilation swept the largely black crowd of more than 20,000 protesters as they marched peacefully through the streets of Cape Town last week, with scarcely a policeman in sight— a rarity on such occasions. Hundreds of whites, including Cape Town’s new mayor, Gordon Oliver, joined black and Colored (mixed-race) South Africans for the country’s largest mass protest since Pretoria imposed emergency rule and outlawed political demonstrations in 1986. Church leaders had called the march to protest police violence during the national elections on

Sept. 6, when security forces allegedly killed as many as 29 anti-apartheid protesters. Frederik de Klerk, whose reform-minded National Party won a slim majority in the all-white House of Assembly, then defied his own government’s emergency laws to grant permission for the march. Declared Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped organize the protest: “We have scored a great victory for justice and peace.”

De Klerk, who was formally elected president by a vote in parliament last week, did not explain his extraordinary decision to allow the protest to proceed. Over the past two months, anti-apartheid demonstrators, waging a campaign of civil disobedience to protest the exclusion of the country’s 26-million-member black majority from national elections, regularly faced riot police wielding guns, whips and tear gas. A spokesman for the right-wing opposition

Conservative Party immediately denounced de Klerk’s decision as a “capitulation” to antiapartheid radicals. But, at week’s end, another 12,000 protesters in Johannesburg and Pretoria, citing the Cape Town example, staged their own peaceful demonstrations to protest election-night violence—and met with no police resistance.

De Klerk may have wanted to avoid a violent crackdown after his election pledge to negotiate a greater role for blacks in national affairs. And he was clearly concerned that further police violence would threaten his hopes of averting new economic sanctions against South

Africa. One Western diplomat who witnessed the demonstration, and who asked not to be identified, said that the protest march “was a litmus test for the new government, and it was very important that there was no state repression.” He added, “It feels like the start of a new era.”

One day after the Cape Town march, neighboring Namibians held an equally extraordinary rally. Sam Nujoma, president of the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), which has fought a 23-year bush war against South African troops occupying his country, was greeted by thousands of supporters as he arrived at the airport in the Namibian capital of Windhoek after almost three decades in exile. Under the terms of a wide-ranging southern African peace agreement signed last December, Namibians will elect a national assembly in November. As well, South Africa has undertak-

en to withdraw its troops from Namibia next year. SWAPO is widely expected to win the elections.

However, the leftist group suffered a severe blow to its morale two days before Nujoma’s return when a senior SWAPO official, white lawyer Anton Lubowski, was gunned down in front of his home in Windhoek. A shadowy group of white, right-wing extremists known as the Wit Wolwe (White Wolves) claimed responsibility. Still, Hilda Dude, an official of South Africa’s anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, said that the Namibian independence process was an inspiration to the forces for change at home. Declared Dude: “It is Namibia today, but tomorrow it will be South Africa.”

In fact, police violence on election night appears to have launched a turning point in Pretoria’s treatment of the anti-apartheid campaign. Even a pro-government newspaper, Beeld (Image), last week called for a full accounting of the violence on polling day. And the most senior Colored officer on the South African police force, Col. Johan Manual, said that riot squads should act more responsibly.

When Tutu and Rev. Allan Boesak, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, first called for last week’s demonstration in Cape Town, police vowed to forcibly stop the march. But the night before the protest, de Klerk performed a profound aboutface. He appealed to protesters to march peacefully but ordered police not to interfere. “The door to a new South Africa is open,” de Klerk told reporters in his most conciliatory speech since the election. “It is not necessary to batter it down.” Meanwhile, Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok announced that he had appointed a senior police officer to investigate allegations of police misconduct on election night. “If powers have been exceeded,” de Klerk said, “remedial steps will be taken.”

In Cape Town last week, as protesters set off from St. George’s Anglican Cathedral and marched 20 abreast down Adderley Street within blocks of the national parliament, only a few uniformed traffic police cleared cars from the street while a handful of plainclothes officers maintained a low profile.

And when the protesters squeezed into city hall at the end of the 3^-hour demonstration, Tutu declared that the peaceful march proved that police had provoked violence during other anti-apartheid demonstrations. Said Tutu: “Mr. de Klerk, you wanted us to show you that we can be dignified and peaceful. Well, we have done that.” Cape Town Mayor Oliver, who became an instant celebrity with his pledge to join the demonstration, was greeted by a roar of applause when he declared, “Today, Cape Town has won.” At week’s end, anti-apartheid protesters savored their small victory. But, signalling that the war against racial segregation was far from won, they also vowed to continue their mass defiance campaign.

MARY NEMETH

CHRIS ERASMUS

Cape Town