Is state preparing to lift Emergency?

For the first time since its imposition three years ago, on June 12 1986, there is serious speculation that the nationwide State of Emergency may not be renewed. Yesterday’s statement by Information Minister Stoffel van der Merwe that the government was in the process of “considering whether it was advisable or justifiable” to lift the Emergency lent credence to the speculation – in the past its renewal has been assumed without question. 

Speculation was further fuelled by a carefully framed but clear indication from the chairman of the secretariat of the State Security Council, Lieutenant General Charles Lloyd, that the “securocrats” believed “unrest” was broadly “under control”. The circumstantial basis for the speculation goes further. Observers believe a number of simultaneous developments – not least the prospect of state president-elect FW de Klerk being received by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher within weeks – could convince the cabinet to do without the Emergency laws. The current Emergency expires in less than a month’s time, on June 10. 

Foreign Minister Pik Botha has confirmed that “arrangements” are under way for De Klerk to visit Thatcher, and it is believed this could take place very soon – raising the intriguing possibility that the Emergency could be lifted at around the same time. If this scenario materialised, De Klerk would be able to cement his “reformist” image among Western leaders, and offer Thatcher the lifting of the Emergency as a tangible product of her policy of continued contact with Pretoria. This would go some way toward offsetting the embarrassment after her public statement last year that Pik Botha had assured her that jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela would be released “soon” – and Pretoria’s subsequent inaction on the issue. 

The lifting of the Emergency would have similarly beneficial effects in the United States for De Klerk and his “new style”. He will definitely be meeting with Secretary of State James Baker in the near future, and the possibility of an audience with President George Bush- is far from being ruled out. Yesterday, Bush held discussions about sanctions with top    anti-apartheid leaders Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev Allan Boesak, and Dr CF Beyers Naude. He has stated his wish to meet as broad a range as possible of South African leaders, and could fit De Klerk into this “programme” with relative ease. 

Although no clear dates have been set for de Klerk’s venture into international diplomacy, it will certainly be before September. Another compelling reason which is causing some diplomatic observers and opposition politicians to consider the prospect of the end of Emergency rule seriously, is the fact that it has been increasingly lightly applied in recent months. The overt security force clampdown shift d to more subtle forms as early as mld-1987, and there remain a plethora of security laws distinct from the Emergency which the government can utilise at any time. 

Some specific aspects of the Emergency have come close to falling into d1suse: the hunger strike has effectively crippled the system of Emergency detention, the Emergency Media Regulations onslaught on the press shows signs of abating, and the effective “amnesty” offered to security forces acting in terms of the Emergency has hardly been used. Against this, the government will have to weigh up the costs of having recently-imposed Emergency restriction orders on individuals lifted.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested with increasing conviction in recent months that the government no longer “needed” the Emergency; and could reap positive benefits from dispensing with it.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
Guest Author

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