ONE of the main characteristics of the State of Emergency is its attempt to enforce a regime of censorship on society. It is therefore not surprising that most people in Pietermaritzburg are unaware that between 12 June 1986 and mid-1988, over 1 500 people have been detained without trial in this area. It is generally recognised that detention by the state without recourse to a court of law is one of the most extreme violations of civil rights and human dignity. As such it is condemned internationally by governments, civilised opinion and human rights agencies. It is particularly crucial that supporters of the government and its policies, such as detention without trial, should understand the full implications of their approval.

There are several indisputable aspects to detention. Its victims are taken out of their normal environment comprising work, home and recreation for an unpredictable period of time to the isolation and possible hostility of prison life without any opportunity to put a case to a court through a professional defence. This removal often happens in the middle of the night when people are at their most vulnerable and it may occur without any detailed reason being given: the good faith of members of the security forces is virtually assumed by the emergency regulations. It is an offence to call for the release of such persons or to describe their prison conditions. However, the state’s own documents show that detainees’ rights are more limited than those of convicted prisoners. Detainees may receive visits from family and lawyers and be allowed reading material and study rights, but none of these are automatic.

Such conditions are being endured by people who have been convicted of no crime. The number of detainees eventually charged with an offence represents a very small proportion and the number successfully prosecuted is even fewer. It seems logical to assume that for ex-detainees and their families and friends, a social and legal system that permits such a travesty of justice will earn no respect or legitimacy.

Indeed detention without trial is the antithesis of justice and a legitimate legal system. It is an overtly political weapon and characteristic of societies in the process of terminal moral decay. This is borne out by looking at the characteristics of Pietermaritzburg’s detainees who fall into two main groups: political leaders and activists; and young people caught up in the conflict in the townships.

The activist group, with a few exceptions, is linked to organisations that respect the Freedom Charter. This document may be interpreted in a number of different ways, but has as its greatest strength an underlying agenda in accord with internationally accepted and respected human rights standards. None of these activists has been convicted of violence and some of them are self-professed pacifists. A core group is now experiencing periodic detention as a way of life. Such detention is primarily preventive with the aim of removing certain personalities from normal political discourse. The classic case is provided by the detention on 13 November 1987 of thirteen United Democratic Front participants in discussions about regional peace talks. Recent releases have been accompanied in over 30 cases by restriction orders involving evening and night time house arrest and a prohibition on engagement in activities of named organisations, again without any misdemeanour having been proved in court.

So bankrupt is the government of political ideas and morality that instead of engaging in debate with its opponents, it silences them via the legal system, a tactic that should alarm every intelligent citizen concerned about the future. If political detention for opponents becomes accepted as a norm, there can be no guarantee that one day it will not be used by today’s victims.

For the second group, that of random detainees, its fate is one of double arbitrary punishment by apartheid. A few individuals are no doubt guilty of criminal offences, but two facts about them should be remembered. First, the roots of their actions lie in the powerlessness and poverty inflicted upon them by racial classification and the exploitation of apartheid; and second, they are entitled to speedy and fair trials. While people within this group vary, they may generally be described as anti-Inkatha. The information to hand suggests that no more than 50 Inkatha supporters have been detained without trial in the last two years. Yet again we see state strategy exercised through detention fashioned in an obviously partisan way.

This massive violation of basic violation of human rights by the State has affected not just individual detainees but the material and psychological well-being of their families and the activities of their organisations. The State has raised the price of active opposition to its policies and those of its allies by detention, and the threat of detention. In doing so it and its supporters may feel they have achieved some success but it is important to look beyond short-term illusions to the future.

There is every reason to argue that detention and restriction of anti-government leaders has contributed to the level of violence by removing influential, reasoned and articulate opinion from one side of the conflict. Furthermore, perversion of the legal system by allowing detention without trial as a key tactic, and on such a large scale, threatens the fabric of an already brittle society. On this evidence it is a legacy we shall live to regret.

This article was first published in the Natal Witness on 19 August 1988 and entitled ‘A legacy we shall live to regret’.

Further reading: Don Foster, David Davis and Dianne Sandler, Detention and Torture in South Africa: Psychological, Legal and Historical Studies (Cape Town: David Philip, 1987).