This month three South African Churchmen chose to go to prison for 50 days rather than pay fines after being found guilty of offences under the Riotous Assemblies Act. Their "crime" was to take part in a peaceful protest march through Johannesburg. They opted for prison as "a Christian witness of solidarity" with the MO or 400 people detained without trial during the past few months. Many of those detained are schoolchildren.
Here a special correspondent from South Africa reports on the treatment received by some of the detainees and examines the background to the current unrest.
AN UNEASY truce was declared last week between the South African Government and country's coloured or mixed race community. The three month old schools boycott by thousands of coloured students in the Western Cape was suspended and talks reopened between the government and the Coloured Labour Party about possible constitutional reforms.
The decision to call off the boycott, at least temporarily, was taken by the Committee of 81, the body which has been coordinating the protest. Though largely peaceful, the boycott has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence between protesters and police. It has also led to hundreds of students being detained without trial and treated in a way which has concerned many observers, including the Church's Justice and Peace Commission in Port Elizabeth.
The decision to end the boycott was approved by the vast majority of schools involved and the government \sill undoubtedly interpret this as a significant victory. But the students also said they would continue to campaign for the changes in the educational system which they have been demanding.
Education has become the focal point of black resistance to apartheid. The Coloured protests were organised by the students themselves, as they were in the now famous "uprising" in the township of Soweto four y ears ago.
This time the government's public response has been markedly less ferocious. Nevertheless it has continued toinsist that "law and order" must be maintained.
What this has meant for the student boycotters 1 found out in detail in Port Elizabeth. These students have been protesting in the only nonviolent way possible (by boycotting classes) against the three tier system of education which spends twice as much on 'white education as it does on 'black' and 'coloured' put together.
Their long-term demands are for full) integrated education for all racial groups. In the short term they want improvements in the existing system. Their grievances include the huge differences in the per capita sums spent on the different groups' education, the acute shortages of qualified teachers and textbooks. and an end to the "free access" enjoyed by the security police to schools and colleges.
The authorities' reaction has been to accept that changes need to be made and to promise to look into the whole question. Meanwhile, however, they have attempted to destroy the student leadership.
In practice this has meant lifting and detaining students for two or three weeks at a time. keeping them in solitary confinement in places unknown to their families, and beating them during interrogation.
It is estimated that since the beginning of May. more than 300 school children have been detained in this way. Initially the students are detained under Section ten of the Internal Security Act (for a stated length of time) and can then be rearrested under Section 22 of the General Laws Amendment Act. Students who have been released have spoken of how they were subjected to real prison conditions (without having been sentenced). They have told of being confined to cold and draughty rooms in army and police buildings miles away from their homes, of beatings with belts and hoses, of hairpulling and pin torture and of being forced to stand for long periods during interrogation by the security police. In addition to this police attacks on schools and colleges have been a common occurrence. Two particularly serious examples of this were the attacks on Dharc Training College, Port Elizabeth (June I I) and Durban Westville College, (June 18). In both these cases riot squads of police entered the buildings and heat up students indiscriminately in Now that the students are in the middle of their annual Winter vacation the dust has settled temporarily, but it remains to he seen next term whether or not they will reopen the boycott. Meanwhile. there remains the problem of those students who are still detained.
One cannot but be impressed by the political maturity of these young people who are being forced daily to think in political terms about their present position in the community and their future.
It reinforces the view that there is a new determination and an increased discipline among the young people of South Africa. This seems to be spreading gradually among their parents' generation.
• Last month saw a crystallisation of black discontent manifested in a variety of ways. Apart from the schools' boycott there was in the Capetown area a meat strike over wages and a bus boycott over increased fares.
There was also the commemoration or the Soweto uprising, the South African invasion of Angola and the government's deCision not to take any action over the behaviour of the doctors responsible for treating Steve Biko at the time of his death in detention. Finally, there were increased restrictions on the press and media and continuing detentions and bannings. Now the government has promised to ease sonic of the restrictions imposed by apartheid.
On August 7 a deputation of South African church leaders led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, will meet the Prime Minister, R W Botha. The events of the past few months will ensure some tough talking on both sides.