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Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - South Africa

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1991
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - South Africa, 1 January 1991, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca2c2.html [accessed 27 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The year 1990 was one of both celebration and tragedy in South Africa. The world rejoiced over State President F.W. de Klerk's February 2 speech, in which he lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition groups and promised to free Nelson Mandela, halt executions, release a number of political prisoners, allow some exiles to return home and partially end emergency restrictions. By year's end, the national state of emergency had been lifted and the Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which had required local officials to reserve municipally owned property exclusively for whites, had been repealed.

Detracting from the optimism generated by these promising developments were the brutal killings in the second half of 1990 of more than 1,000 South Africans in the townships around Johannesburg. The so-called "black on black" violence spread in late July from Natal province, where it has claimed the lives of at least 5,000 over the past four years, to the Transvaal, where it continued throughout the rest of the year. Despite abundant evidence of official complicity, South African leaders denied allegations that government security forces were implicated in the killings, while admitting that the violence might be the work of a "hidden hand" or "third force."

The repression in South Africa in 1990 was in part a backlash by the security forces against the expectations of blacks who, in the wake of President de Klerk's promises and Mandela's release, demanded an end to apartheid. Members of the security forces did not change their tactics according to the new attitudes of the national government, and they continued to persecute blacks as before, particularly members of the ANC and other opposition groups. Not a day after de Klerk's February 2 speech, which included a promise to end the season of violence, police used force to suppress jubilant demonstrations by blacks. On March 26, initial talks between the government and the ANC were called off after 17 black protesters were killed by police in Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg.

The momentous changes of February sent shock waves throughout South Africa's "independent" homelands, whose residents suffer the extremes of poverty and corruption and must bear the additional burden of the loss of their South African citizenship. On March 4, a brutal surge of repression in the Ciskei ended in a coup, removing the tyrannical regime of President-for-Life Lennox Sebe. Three days later, in Bophuthatswana, at least six demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured when police fired on a peaceful protest by some 150,000 residents, whose demands included reincorporation into South Africa. A state of emergency has been in effect in Bophuthatswana since March and is used to persecute members of the opposition. On April 5, leadership of Venda was "handed over" by President Frank Ravele to Col. Gabriel Ramushwana. Protests against official abuses, including some 19 killings in February and March and numerous detentions, had brought Venda to a virtual standstill prior to the coup.

The South African government denied any responsibility for what appears to be the self-destruction of the homeland system and blamed it instead on "inter-tribal" conflicts. In May, the government announced that it would no longer pursue independence for the six "self-governing" homelands, and that it would not incorporate any more land into the homelands without the approval of the legal residents of that land. Only two months later, however, the Ciskei leader, Brig. Oupa Gqozo, claimed that South Africa had agreed to incorporate nearly 100,000 acres of land into the Ciskei.

Several judicial inquiries were undertaken in 1990. The most publicized, and ultimately the most disappointing, was the Harms Commission. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee announced the establishment of the Harms Commission on January 31, in response to outcries by South African and international human rights groups over allegations by three former police officers in October and November 1989 that they had been members of an officially authorized and funded police death squad. In early 1990, another death squad, the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), sponsored by the South African Defense Forces, was revealed. The allegations presented the de Klerk government with one of its first major domestic crises and nearly provoked the dismissal of the Defense Minister, Gen. Magnus Malan.

Unfortunately, the Harms Commission was seriously flawed in both design and practice. At the outset, Justice Harms announced that he would limit the inquiry to acts committed within the borders of South Africa, even though many anti-apartheid activists had been assassinated on foreign soil. Government witnesses, some of whom showed up to testify in wigs and other disguises, were not required to produce pertinent documents. The CCB was disbanded in August, but no prosecutions resulted. The Harms Commission report, which was released in November, failed to name any special units of the army or police, let alone any individual officers, as participants in the death squads. The report was denounced by opposition groups as a whitewash.

On the other hand, the Goldstone Commission, which investigated the Sebokeng massacre in March, found that the riot police had used force which was "quite immoderate and disproportionate to any lawful object sought to be attained." Nearly half of the 281 people killed by gunfire had been shot from behind.24 Although the commission recommended prosecution of several members of the riot police, there was no public indication that prosecutions had begun by the end of 1990.

In Natal, which has been devastated by violence for several years, 50 died in the three days immediately following Mandela's release. On April 2, President de Klerk announced that he would send more police and army troops to the area, seemingly an ineffective solution in light of repeated claims by human rights groups that security forces have exacerbated and prolonged the bloodshed. De Klerk excluded Natal when he ended the national State of Emergency in June, but finally lifted the emergency there in October.

Police abuses are likely to continue throughout the country because the police retain wide powers, including the ability to detain suspects indefinitely for interrogation under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act of 1982. Max Coleman of the Detainees' Parents Support Committee was quoted as saying that, from January to late November 1990, some 1,600 had been detained in South Africa – double the number detained in 1989. Reports of torture and deaths in detention continue. According to Coleman, three blacks died in detention in South Africa in 1990.25

In July, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the KwaZulu homeland that is scattered throughout Natal, announced that his Inkatha cultural movement had become a national political party. The war in Natal soon spread to the townships around Johannesburg, where it has pitted predominantly pro-Inkatha inhabitants of hostels against predominantly pro-ANC township residents. The hostel dwellers, whose legal residences are in KwaZulu, have been forced to come without their families to seek work in the townships. The horrible living conditions of the hostels provide a prime breeding ground for violence

The first incident occurred after a July 22 Inkatha rally in Sebokeng turned violent, killing 24. The violence escalated rapidly in August and September. In response, on September 15, the South African government initiated Operation Iron Fist, which called for curfews, the arming of police vehicles with machine guns, the use of aerial spray dyes, and razor-wire barricades to encircle hostels and squatter camps. Twenty-seven townships were placed under emergency rule. On September 19, amid accusations that the security forces were contributing to the violence, President de Klerk ordered the formation of "special investigative units" to examine allegations of police misconduct in the township violence. Mandela was among those who said that the matter was too serious to be treated as an internal police matter, and called instead for an independent inquiry, which the government has so far refused to allow. By year's end, the Transvaal township violence had claimed over 1,000 lives. Emergency rule was lifted, but increased fighting in December resulted in the reimposition of emergency rule in four townships.

US Policy

US policy toward South Africa followed the trend set during President Bush's first year in office. That policy differed markedly from the "constructive engagement" of former President Reagan and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, in that Bush administration officials were more vocal in their criticism of the South African government and were usually more careful to explain the uneven nature of many government reforms.

For example, after President de Klerk's announcement in June of the partial lifting of the State of Emergency, the Bush administration stated:

We welcome the announcement of the ending of the State of Emergency in South Africa except in Natal. This is another significant step toward creating a climate conducive to negotiation that will lead to a democratic, non-racial, South Africa....

Much work remains to be done by all sides. The issue of the remaining political prisoners needs to be resolved. The continuing climate of violence and intimidation must be transformed, and the senseless killings in Natal Province must end.

The administration also maintained a firm and clear voice on sanctions. In reaction to President de Klerk's February 2 speech, President Bush said that he had been convinced of the need "to review all policy."26 Shortly thereafter, President Bush invited both President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela to visit the White House. However, the administration was quick to state that it remained bound by the conditions of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, and could not yet lift or modify sanctions.

During the first official visit to Washington by a South African President since 1945, Bush gave an unprecedented blessing to de Klerk by pronouncing South Africa's path to reform "irreversible." However, in keeping with the administration's commitment to maintain sanctions, any discussion of the sanctions question was assiduously avoided. Before meeting with Bush, de Klerk had said that he did not come with a "shopping list" of steps that he expected the US administration to take; after their meeting, both said that the sanctions were not mentioned. Following the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen made clear that the administration would not lift sanctions until further steps were taken:

The two remainaing obstacles are the relase of prisoners and the lifting of the state of emergency in Natal. President de Klerk indicated that the prisoner release procedures are now in train but he did not indicate when he expected those procedures to be completed. The state of emergency he did not comment on.

(Although the state of emergency was later lifted, all prisoners had not been released by year's end, so sanctions continued.)

In one of the few areas of difference with the Bush administration in 1989, Africa Watch criticized it for its silence on the fragmentation of South Africa into separate bantustans, and noted that some of the most serious violations of human rights occurred in the "independent" homelands of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana. On March 9, 1990, following a military coup and the imposition of a state of emergency in Ciskei and the killing of seven protestors in Bophuthatswana, the administration broke this silence and issued one of its first public statements condemning the South African government's homelands policy. Commenting on the violence in Bophuthatswana, the State Department said:

[T]he United States does not recognize the so-called `independent homelands' established by the South African government. We are concerned by the serious violence which has erupted in at least two of the homelands. People in these areas are being denied the rights which are due to all South Africans. We regard compulsory assignment of blacks to these homelands and efforts to deprive them of their South African citizenship as fundamental violations of human rights.

This was an important advance in US policy.

However, there was one major human rights development in South Africa that completely escaped the administration's public commentary: allegations regarding the role of the security forces in fanning the violence between supporters of Inkatha and the ANC. To the knowledge of Africa Watch, no public statement by the US government has ever directly commented on the role of the South African security forces in this violence. Instead, to the extent that the administration has focused on the issue of fighting between Inkatha and the ANC at all, it has treated the issue as a domestic political problem. For example, in April, the State Department simply urged that "all parties put political considerations aside and work together to develop a strategy for ending the violence." Similarly, in the chapter on South Africa in the Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1989, issued in February 1990, the State Department accurately noted the devastating impact that this violence has had upon South Africa, but failed to comment upon the role of the security forces.

The lack of US comment on the South African security-force role in this violence was highlighted by events before and during President de Klerk's visit to Washington. In the week prior to his arrival, the death toll in just the townships around Johannesburg had reached over 750, and reports in both the US and South African press commented on the alleged involvement of South African security forces in fanning the violence. However, according to Assistant Secretary Cohen, when President Bush met President de Klerk, he restricted his remarks on this issue to expressing "concern about the growing violence in South Africa" and urged de Klerk to "fulfill his responsibilities to maintain law and order."27 While this strong statement of concern was to be applauded, it would have been more effective if President Bush had shown some recognition of the role of the government forces in promoting the violence.

The Work of Africa Watch

In 1990, Africa Watch continued to concentrate attention on the neglected issue of human rights abuse in the homelands. A newsletter in January on abuses related to forced incorporation of land into Ciskei highlighted the suffering endured by one community whose homes were demolished in reprisal for their resistance to incorporation. Africa Watch published an article in the October issue of Africa Events which traced the roots of the recent township violence to homeland policies and discussed current human rights issues in the homelands.

Throughout the year, Africa Watch contacted the South African authorities about particular cases of detention in the homelands, including Venda human rights activist Magwedzha Phanuel Mphaphuli, detained on March 22 in the city of Louis Trichardt; Glen Thomas, a field worker with the Grahamstown Rural Committee, a human rights group which works with the rural people in the Ciskei and the northern border region, who was arrested in May; and Dr. Thabo Rangaka, Nomvula Hlongwane, Mangel Panchia and others arrested on November 12 and 13 for their involvement with MAREF – the Mafikeng Anti-Repression Forum – an organization which monitors human rights in Bophuthatswana.

Africa Watch sent messages to Mandela, President de Klerk and South African Ambassador to the United States Piet Koornhof which welcomed Mandela's release, the lifting of the ban on the ANC and other organizations, the decision to suspend executions and the release of several other political prisoners. The messages to the government also urged the complete lifting of the State of Emergency, the repeal of the Population Registration and Group Areas Acts, and the release of all political prisoners.

In early January 1991, Africa Watch will release a full-length report, The Killings in South Africa: The Role of the Security Forces and the Response of the State. Written by an Africa Watch researcher who visited Natal and other areas of South Africa in mid-1990, the report contains dozens of eyewitness accounts of the violence, including descriptions of the role of the security forces in promoting the violence and their failure to respond to the needs of the victims.


24 David Beresford, "Riot police condemned by SA judge," The Guardian (London), September 3, 1990.

25 Christopher Wren, "Despite Changes, South Africa Detentions Remain," New York Times, December 2, 1990.

26 Maureen Dowd, "Bush Would Weigh Easing Sanctions," New York Times, February 3, 1990.

27 White House Readout Following the Visit of President de Klerk with President Bush, September 24, 1990.

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