Day after day, the number of detainees grew--first 500, then 800, finally 1,000. Police jeeps and trucks rumbled through the dusty, despair-ridden black townships that surround South Africa's towns and cities, stopping at this house and that. A man was pulled out here, a woman there. The security forces arrested political activists, church workers, students, labor organizers, youthful militants--anyone, it seemed, who might conceivably lead a protest against the white minority government of State President P.W. Botha. At times the detentions seemed carefully planned, at others indiscriminate: near Johannesburg, 22 bus passengers were taken into custody as they returned from a funeral. Virtually all those arrested in police actions were black.
Thus last week the most densely populated areas of stricken and divided South Africa fell under an iron-like state of emergency. The crackdown by the Botha government came after ten months of black protest against apartheid, the country's rigidly enforced structure of racial separation, and followed earlier, ineffective repressions by the government. Almost 500 people, practically all of them black, died during that extended and bloody period of confrontation, some at the hands of fellow blacks, the majority as the result of police action to put down the unrest. Botha's proclamation of the emergency was intended to end the violence and bring about what General Johan Coetzee, the national police commissioner, described as a "cooling down of the situation as soon as possible." Under the emergency regulations, police were allowed to enter homes, seize property, detain without charge and order people from one location to another. Journalists were barred from areas where sweeps by security forces were under way.
Yet the violence did not end. In the first week of the emergency, police and army units repeatedly clashed with black protesters, who sometimes fought with rocks against tear gas, sjamboks (short leather whips) and gunfire. Early in the week four blacks died after security forces opened fire with shotguns on 400 demonstrators in the township of Daveyton, near Johannesburg. By week's end 16 had been killed since the declaration of the emergency. The toll was surprisingly low, given the number of people involved in the areas covered by the decree. But the potential for more violence was great.
Once again South Africa was gripped by painful and potentially dangerous spasms of repression-unrest-repression, a cycle that has periodically haunted the country since the early '60s. With each peak of confrontation the state of affairs has worsened, while the essential issues have remained as unresolved as ever. Not since 1960, when 69 black protesters were killed by police at Sharpeville, had the government been forced to impose a state of emergency, a fact that caused concern not only in Pretoria, South Africa's capital, but in nations around the world.