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Unexpected ban of black papers shocks S. Africa's liberal whites

There has been shocked and angry reaction to the South African government's decision to ban the only two black newspapers in the country with really significant daily and weekly circulations.

The papers are the daily Post Transvaal and the Sunday Post. Both circulate mainly in Soweto, a volatile sprawl of black townships near Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city.

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Post Transvaal had a daily sale of 112,000, but its actual daily readership was estimated at 907,000. The Sunday Post had a sale of 118,000 and an estimated readership of more than 1 million.

The leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party in the all-white South African Parliament Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, says that banning the newspapers is like "killing the messenger because you do not like the message," and that it introduces a "new escalation of confrontation" in the country.

Dave Dalling, another Progressive Federal Party spokesman, declared the banning is a "fascist step" that is "bringing the revolution nearer."

The government has been playing a rather mysterious cat-and-mouse game with the Post newspapers for some weeks.

The papers first ran into trouble when they failed to appear for two months because of a strike by black journalists demanding better pay and working conditions for themselves and other black staff, including messengers and drivers.

After much wrangling, the owners of the papers, the powerful Argus Printing and Publishing Company, and the journalists' trade union, the Media Workers' Association of South Africa, finally reached a settlement at the end of December. The both sides got to work to get the papers back on the streets again.

But the government rushed in with a writ, warning the editor, Percy Qoboza, and the management that the papers' licenses to print had lapsed because the papers had failed to appear for more than a month. A Supreme Court judge has upheld this ruling.

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But it still seemed just an annoying technicality, and the government gave no hint that it intended actually to ban the papers.

Indeed Minister of Internal Affairs Chris Heunis seemed to imply that all the owners had to do was reapply for registration.

But he and his colleague, Justice Minister H. J. Coetsee, a Cabinet newcomer, told Argus company boss Hal Miller this week that if the company insisted in going through with the application for re-registering the papers, the government would simply ban them forthwith anyway in terms of the Internal Security Act.

There is no right of appeal to the courts against this, and Mr. Miller announced his company would consequently not try to have the papers registered. "We see no point in making a futile gesture by insisting on registration and submitting to the injustice of actual banning," he said. And he added, "We have no power to prevent the government's action, no redress against the course it has chosen to follow.

"We think that by acting this way it diminishes us all -- that another bar has been added to the cage which is beginning to circumscribe our freedom."

It is difficult to understand why the government has taken this drastic step against the Post papers, especially at a time when it is trying to present a "liberal" im age to the world.

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