1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

Botha’s last stand?

The last few months have seen South Africa take several steps nearer to becoming a police state. Under the state of emergency the director-general of the Department of Education and Training has issued new instructions banning the display of any slogans on T-shirts, school bags and so on that express opposition to the apartheid regime. In addition the director-general can ban any course, class or syllabus that is not approved of by the Education Act or is. in other words, considered subversive. These new powers supplement other decrees issued under the state of emergency which compel pupils to enrol in school.

At the same time there have been new, draconian restrictions placed on the media: nothing can be published about militant, black organisations, consumer boycotts, strikes, campaigns of civil disobedience or detentions of political prisoners. Neither are newspapers allowed to print white spaces to indicate that material has been removed to meet the requirements of state censorship. In a feeble attempt to justify the new measures President Botha claimed that the media was promoting the cause of “radicals”, especially the African National Congress, rather than that of the “moderates”. In an advertisement published in December last year he said:

    There can . . . be no doubt that there are individuals within the established media and organs of the alternative media who strongly believe that the media should be overtly and covertly used to promote the objectives of the radical revolution.

Meanwhile the coercion by the security forces continues: since the beginning of the state of emergency it is estimated that 22,000 people have been detained without trial or charge and it is thought that 8,200 of these detainees have been children under the age of 18. 4,000 of whom are still in prison. Those who have been released tell of appalling torture and brutality by their guards and their statements are backed up by a growing dossier of medical evidence from doctors who have examined the children on their release. The Detainees Parents Support Group, an independent monitoring group which has collected the statistics, claim that:

  The security forces are attempting to instill fear of involvement among the children . . . the picture that emerges is one of seemingly random detentions.

The overtly coercive tactics of mass detentions, new restrictions on the media and education are part of an increasingly desperate attempt by the South African government to retain control in the face of not only unrest among blacks in the townships but also of what can only be described as a situation of dual power.

In the townships over the past two years an alternative structure of community action groups, student associations, tenants’ groups and street committees have grown up. At the same time the state-sponsored community councils have seen their authority reduced and their members labelled as collaborators. The community councils, elected in polls that were heavily boycotted, have from the start lacked legitimacy in the eyes of township residents because of their close association with apartheid. Over the last two years many councillors have resigned and others have been brutally punished for their “collaboration”. Increasingly militant black community organisations have taken over the administration of their own communities. Education has been a particular focus for discontent, leading to the schools’ boycott of 1985 and 1986 and the closing of some schools by the Education Department as a result. But while formal education has virtually ceased in many areas, an alternative system of “people’s education” has developed with the pupils themselves determining its content and direction. It is fear of this self-education that has led to the new emergency decrees forcing children to return to the kind of schooling that the state deems acceptable.

The restrictions on the media also represent an important part of the attempt by the state to regain control in the townships since they mean that local organisations are no longer able to communicate with people through local newspapers and it has become more difficult to organise or publicise campaigns.

But more sinister perhaps is the way in which the state has established a covert system of local security councils which have a dual function of, on the one hand, undermining militant black groups and on the other, trying to restore legitimacy to township groups acceptable to the government. The National Security Management System (NSMS) was established seven years ago but over the last two years it was established a network of over 500 regional and local Joint Management Committees (JMCs) throughout the country. Their function is to undermine the black opposition by exploiting factional rivalries between different groups and by running propaganda campaigns designed to discredit the “alternative” township committees. By gathering intelligence locally which is relayed back to the NSMS they also enable the police and security forces to arrest local activists and political leaders. At the same time JMCs are trying to restore legitimate authority to the state-sponsored community councils by dealing with some of the grievances of township residents such as poor housing. Clearly there is a recognition that heavy-handed repressive tactics are costly and, in the long run, less effective than more subtle means of undermining opposition.

At the same time as the white ruling class in South Africa pursues this twin track strategy towards the blacks, it is also trying to restore its image in the eyes of its traditional Afrikaner supporters. In the month before the ANC celebrated its 75th anniversary. Botha stated that he would root out ANC members both within South Africa itself and also in the surrounding countries. To show he meant business he launched a series of raids into neighbouring Swaziland. With the possibility of an early election being called this year he is likely to make a patriotic appeal to whites in South Africa to close ranks against what is portrayed as the threat of Russian-backed black insurgents inside South Africa. But as multi-national after multi-national pulls out of the country because of the threat to their profitability posed by continuing instability and the failure of the Botha regime to provide a framework in which capitalist enterprise can flourish, white workers in South Africa are likely to start asking themselves questions, if not about the morality of apartheid then surely about a system that can no longer guarantee their jobs and privileged standard of living.

Janie Percy-Smith