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Sweeping ban on South African political meetings runs into trouble

The latest meeting to run afoul of a government proclamation banning all meetings "of a political nature" of more than 10 people is the annual, highly regarded Academic Freedom Lecture at one of South Africa's leading universities.

The lecture has been postponed indefinitely after the university, Rhodes University at Grahamstown, was warned by security police that it probably would be prosecuted if the lecture were given.

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The lecturer was to have been a distinguished academic, Prof. G. R. Bozzoli, the retired rector of the country's biggest university, the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa's financial center.

Grahamstown university officials are considering taking the matter to South Africa's Supreme Court in an attempt to get a clearer definition of what they may or may not do.

Some staff members beleive that the ban is so loosely and widely phrased that it could lead to the banning of ordinary lectures on political science or een sociology.

The local magistrate already has refused university groups permission to hold meetings at which well-known political figures were to speak.

And even the title of a symposium held at the university was "laundered" to try to avoid prosecution. Instead of being called "The Afrikaans Writer and South African Politics," it was changed to simply "The Situation of the Afrikaans Writer."

The authorities seem to be keeping a particularly watchful eye on activities at Grahamstown university because it is in a part of the country where sporadic black unrest has been continuing among high school students and workers. Conditions are more settled elsewhere.

However, the university itself is an overwhelmingly white institution.

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Opposition politicians complain that the ban, which applies virtually nationwide, is hampering even routine activities of recognized, representative political parties, and that it represents a continuing, further erosion of basic democratic rights.

The restriction is particularly irksome at present for the Progressive Federal Party, the official opposition party in the South African Parliament, because it is fighting a byelection against the ruling National Party in the Cape Town constituency of Simonstown. It is having to apply separately for permits to hold any meetings in the area, even though dozens of them are small, private affairs in private homes.

The National Party candidate in the contest says, however, that it does not bother him that he, too, has to get permits for his meetings.

In spite of opposition protests, Minister of Justice Alwyn Schlebusch reiterated this week that the government does not intend to relax the meetings ban, certainly not before it is due to expie at the end of this month.

And there are fears that it may be extended.

Already another type of ban on political meetings -- one that bans specifically all open-air political meetings unless a permit has been granted by the authorities -- has been in force for a full four years. It, too, was introduced as a temporary measure at the time of the unrest that followed the riots at schools in Soweto, the huge black township near Johannesburg.

At the time, Helen Suzman, the Progressive Federal Party spokesman on civil rights, declared: "We just seem to be going into a chronic state of emergency."

Although Grahamstown university has been obliged to postpone its Academic Freedom Lecture, the University of Witwatersrand went ahead with the annual Academic Freedom Lecture there.

The speaker was Mrs. Suzman, who took the opportunity to castigate "right-wing zombies" in the National Party, to emphasize that human rights and apartheid are "incompatible," and to declare that academic freedom is just one facet of a whole range of freedoms -- human rights -- that people should expect to enjoy in a democratic society.

Many of these rights and freedoms had been restricted by the government, she asserted.

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