South Africa is an odd place in respect to the law. Its laws are politically rigged by the white minority to control the black majority. Still, the ruling whites are enamored of the idea of respecting those laws and especially of respecting the court's enforcement of them. This is the explanation for the latest turn on the South African legal scene.
Until now the government could detain or otherwise restrict under its Internal Security Act just about anyone it chose, without giving a reason. Now the country's highest court has said it must give a reason. In a country where the police may detain a hundred or a thousand or more people on any given day, this can be extremely important, depending, as always in South Africa, on how the authorities react to this particular judicial infringement on their vast (legal) realm of arbitrary power.
The most prominent immediate beneficiary of the new reading is Winnie Mandela, wife of the long-imprisoned black nationalist leader, Nelson Mandela, and herself a forceful spokesman for black rights. She had been "banned," a punishment involving tight controls on residence and public activity, without being given a reason, and so she has now been allowed to return legally to her own home, which is in the black township of Soweto.
Certainly it is better to be free to move about with friends and to live in one's own home than to be living in isolated internal exile or to be otherwise restricted. But in a country where blacks have no political rights and therefore cannot take their proper role in drawing up the laws that govern them, it is not at all like being free. Mrs. Mandela, who remains "listed" (she cannot be quoted inside South Africa) knows this well. "I am grateful to no one," she said upon being freed of restrictions for the first time in more than 20 years. "It was my right to be at home. It was a criminal act on the part of the government to ban me in the first place."
Meanwhile, another confrontation under South Africa's laws may be coming. Bishop Desmond
Tutu said a year ago he would call for economic sanctions against South Africa in a year if the government did not embark on major political reforms. No reasonable person, in his view -- and in ours -- could say the government has met that test. Bishop Tutu now calls for sanctions -- an appeal that opens him to prosecution for treason for undermining the national economy.
The law that exposes him to that peril is an unjust law. The authority of the state demands that it be enforced, the larger interest of South Africa that it not be. Apartheid creates this unbearable contradiction. The way to resolve it is to end apartheid.