Many lawyers and human rights activists, citing evidence that police violence and torture is much more than an occasional aberration, contend that opportunities for abuse are built into South Africa's legal system.
The law contains most of the "preconditions" that, according to Amnesty International, constitute an invitation for torture: emergency regulations that allow the police wide powers of arrest without charge; incommunicado imprisonment without access to lawyers or independent doctors; police immunity from prosecution; trial procedures that do not exclude evidence obtained under duress and a government that issues peremptory denials of torture complaints and refuses to initiate an independent investigation.
A 1982 study by the Detainees' Parents Support Committee outlined torture allegations involving 95 policemen with ranks up to major in 20 locations.
"It's wrong to say this is just the odd wild man," said Max Coleman, a spokesman for the group whose son recently was held for nearly six months under the emergency. "The state needs detention to carry out its work and the security police need torture to make detention effective."
South African law abets the practice, according to John Dugard, one of the country's most noted legal academics, with two provisions that tend to shift the burden of proof to the accused. Written confessions signed in front of magistrates are considered to be voluntary unless a defendant can prove otherwise later. Factual information -- the location of an arms cache, for example -- is also permissible evidence even when obtained by improper methods.
Before 1977, says Dugard, few confessions were introduced in court, and most prosecution cases were based on evidence from witnesses. But since the passage of a new criminal procedure act that year, he says, perhaps 80 percent of security cases center around alleged confessions.