Two United Democratic Front negotiators in the Pietermaritzburg peace talks were yesterday released from prison into a meeting called by police to bring together the city's warring parties. However, strict curbs were placed on the two leaders, and the meeting ended without significant progress having been made.
Skumbuza Ngwenya and Martin Wittenberg, joint secretaries of the Natal Midlands branch of the UDF, were detained under Emergency regulations on Friday. They were detained during a meeting with UDF members in which they were trying to get a mandate to proceed with the talks. Their detentions and those of a number of other UDF and Cosatu members led to the collapse of peace talks between the UDF/Cosatu and Inkatha.
The talks, under the auspices of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce, were due to start yesterday. The UDF said police were detaining those involved in peace negotiations instead of those named in affidavits as participating in violence and against whom court interdicts had been granted. The detention of an estimated 50 UDF/Cosatu members has prompted protests and representations to the authorities by the Chamber and others involved in the negotiations.
They said police action put the peace process, which had reached a promising stage – at risk. Police denied they were deliberately jeopardising the talks, saying people were arrested only in connection with crimes and not because of their membership of any political organization. Then came the dramatic release of the two leaders.
A S Chetty, who chairs the UDF Midlands branch, said he was phoned by the police yesterday morning and told to attend a meeting at local police headquarters. When he arrived he found two senior members of the Chamber of Commerce, Paul van Uytrecht and Rob Pater,and two senior Inkatha members, V V Mvelase and Velaphi Ndlovu, as well as top local police. They were asked to wait for two others who would he joining the group, and Wittenberg and Ngwenya were brought in.
Head of the security police in Pietermaritzburg, Brigadier B J Beukes then read a restriction order to each of the two and informed them that if they did not accept the conditions they would go back to detention. Among the conditions is a bar on either having anything to do with the UDF, Cosatu or its affiliates and a number of other organisations. They may not attend meetings of any of these organisations unless they are held under the auspices of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce and called for the purpose of bringing an end to the violence between supporters of Inkatha and of the UDF.
Speaking later, Wittenberg said Beukes then remarked that he did not want anyone to make wild allegations about the police preventing peace talks. After strenuous efforts to get both sides together, this had now been achieved and negotiations should begin forthwith, the police had said. "When he was asked about the other detainees, he said he had released the leaders andthat the absence of lower ranking people should not be an obstacle to talks." The meeting broke up soon afterwards when Chetty said no talks could start unless Cosatu and the churches had been consulted.
Wittenberg said later it was "fairly bizarre" that they had been released to participate in and push for peace talks, but that they could not report back to their members. He said he had been brought straight from interrogation into the meeting and that neither he nor Ngwenya had had any idea of the police plan for their release.
Commenting on the new developments, Robin Pater, vice-president of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce, said the releases were not a complete surprise. He and FCC general manager Paul van Uytrecht had been pushing "up to ministerial level" for the two to be freed. "We hoped they would be released, and we thought there might be some restrictions, but we did not expect the extent of the curbs," he said.
Van Uytrecht and Pater have been involved for the last nine weeks in delicate negotiations to get both sides of the conflict together. On the future, Pater said, "We are more optimistic now than we were on Tuesday. Then we saw the door closing on talks and we were terribly depressed. Now there is an element of hope." He acknowledged, however, that the restrictions made it "very difficult" for the two UDF leaders to get back to their members. "However, we have offered our help in any way that is acceptable."
Meanwhile violence has continued in the townships around Pietermaritzburg with six deaths reported at the weekend and two since then. The death toll is now at least 89 since September 21.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.