Four years since Soweto
South Africa has sought to prevent turbulence around today's anniversary of the 1976 Soweto riots by banning political gatherings of more than 10 people. The action can only seem to lend further justification to the weekend's United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the South African government for repression against opponents of the racial discrimination system known as apartheid. What is needed now is a continuation of moderating efforts by South Africans themselves to lift the burden of racial injustice from a land of such extraordinary achievement in many ways and of such extraordinary potential for all its people.
Just this year a government-appointed commission in South Africa confirmed what seemed obvious: that the Soweto student demonstration, followed by black rebellion around the country, was due to racial injustice along with official bungling. As long as this injustice is not ameliorated, the seeds of rebellion will remain.
The current ban on political gatherings is not encouraging. Nor is the apparent acceleration of the effort to demolish the dwellings of mixed-race persons in Cape Town's long-targeted District Six and turn it all white.
The problems that have to be alleviated may be indicated by the unanimous Security Council resolution. It stopped short of adding an oil embargo to the military embargo on South Africa, which would have invited a United States veto. But it called on South Africa's "racist regime" to dismantle apartheid and grant equal rights. Among the measures demanded are amnesty for persons imprisoned, restricted, or exiled for opposition to apartheid; the end of violence against peaceful demonstrators and of torture of political prisoners; the elimination of bans on political organizations and news media; the provision of equal educational opportunities for all South Africans.
It is sometimes said that such international censure only stiffens South African governmental resolve to go its own way. In the midst of the long UN diplomatic efforts to bring a peaceful settlement in Namibia (South-West Africa) , South Africa has just administered what it called a shock attack in Angola, killing more than 200 Namibian guerrillas -- the kind of "military act" condemned in the new UN resolution. As for constitutional reform on matters of race, a government plan has recently been undercut by an official's racial slur that was damaging even though later withdrawn. And even moderate nonwhites reportedly shied away when it appeared that proponents of the plan saw it as providing a new form of white domination.
However, forces for genuine change do exist in South Africa, not needing the spur of international condemnation to move toward justice. For example, hope is seen in the leader of the Progressive Federal Party, the official opposition party in the South African Parliament. He is Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, an Afrikaner who departs from the rigid apartheid policy followed by his fellow Afrikaners in the ruling National Party. He favors a national convention in which representatives of all racial groups would negotiate a new constitution for his troubled country. Some initiative of this magnitude and with full participation seems essential to ease the South African situation.
Cynicism may greet such a proposal as just one more venture in window-dressing. But Dr. Slabbert disarms cynicism by insisting: "And I mean real negotiation. I'm not saying, 'Here's my hidden agenda, approve it and I'll tell you how you fit in.' I mean really negotiate."
Opposition leaders have not had much impact on apartheid, though an Afrikaner like Dr. Slabbert could have extra influence. Nor have UN resolutions had much effect. The basic challenge remains for enough South Africans to get into the spirit of addressing their mutual problems with the openness and cooperation that are demanded -- to do for themselves what more and more of them see needs to be done.