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South Africa: to learn from a tragedy

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Will South African authorities learn from the tragic episode of imprisoned union official Neil Aggett and its aftermath? They have constructive governmental and business initiatives to build on. Economic and political stability depends on the pace of reform.

By now the world knows of Dr. Aggett's death after being held in solitary confinement for some 70 days without charge. The protests by both black and white South Africans have been headlined. Less publicized are these potential aids toward peaceful change:

* Governmental. A commission has recommended new protections for persons held under legal provision for indefinite detention.

The need for reform is evident. Dr. Aggett was reported to be the 46th prisoner and the first white person to die in detention under security laws since 1963. Last month the Johannesburg Star covered most of a page with the names of 361 persons it found to have been detained, many for months, since the beginning of last year. It described the security laws as permitting imprisonment without trial and without most normal legal safeguards. It reported that there was a sharp rise in detentions in recent months. It editorialized that ''nobody should be lulled into accepting detentions and bannings as a normal part of the South African scene.''

If South Africans are not to be lulled into accepting such outrages, they would seem to have to support at a minimum such commission recommendations as these: controlling the length of detention, providing an ''inspector of detainees,'' and permitting visits by other than government officials.

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