SOUTH AFRICA has now lifted the state of emergency it proclaimed last July. It deserves no praise for ending what was wrong to begin with, but there are some benefits in what has been done -- unless these are cancelled by the government's promised compensatory toughening of the already draconian security laws.
About 8,000 people were detained without charges in the seven months of the emergency, but henceforth it should be a bit harder for the regime to lock up political opponents and peaceful demonstrators. The media, including foreign television, should now be able to resume covering the news in South Africa, including its racial conflict. This promise has to be set, however, against the government's petulant expulsion of a CBS News reporter and crew for reporting on a political funeral in the brief interval between the announcement of the end of the emergency and the time when it went into effect.
Certainly the ferment will go on, since there is no move yet by the government toward the political decision that alone might eventually ease the nation's crisis. This would be, of course, a decision to let blacks share on a basis of equality in determining their country's destiny. It is the decision that demonstrators in the street and the African National Congress are seeking and will continue to seek. There will be more deaths, beyond the 670 of the emergency, but the perpetuation of apartheid assured that anyway.
Why did South Africa end the emergency? And why at the same time has it suddenly agreed to put its tightly held colony of Namibia on the United Nations' independence track by Aug. 1, if -- big if -- Angola agrees to send home its resident Cubans? Perhaps the South African government felt it had to make these parallel gestures in order to conciliate its foreign bankers -- although a bellwether lender, Barclays of Britain, stung Pretoria by announcing at once that it did not intend to grant new loans until apartheid was scrapped and foreign debt reduced. The government may also have meant to preempt a fresh sanctions attack from the United States. It is always risky to try to read the Afrikaner mind.
The Namibia-Angolan negotiation is of special international interest. Nothing has dramatized South Africa's bad faith more than its breaking of its obligation to release Namibia from its colonial status. In recent years Pretoria has been able to use as an excuse the Reagan administration's acceptance of a link between the South African presence in Namibia and Cuban troups in Angola. Now the administration, by threatening to give aid to Angolan insurgents, is putting pressure on the Angolan government to send home the Cubans. That would shred South Africa's alibi for clinging to Namibia. The trouble is that the aid Washington offers to the insurgents could give Luanda its own new reason to cling to the Cubans. South Africa, in its latest formulation, has cleverly moved closer to an American policy that seems mainly to promise tightening the southern African knot.