Arrests as Suharto visits South Africa

Wednesday, December 3, 1997

By Norm Dixon

Thirty-eight trade unionists protesting against the visit of Indonesian President Suharto to South Africa were arrested in Cape Town on November 20. The protesters, members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who had gathered outside parliament, were chanting and waving placards that read: "Release Xanana Gusmao", "Workers to end Suharto's genocide", "COSATU supports the struggle of Asian workers" and "Suharto, end union bashing now".

Police in riot gear formed ranks beneath the towering statue of white South Africa's first prime minister, General Louis Botha. Chanting "Viva COSATU", the protesters were bundled into police vans and taken away, just minutes before the Indonesian dictator arrived.

The demonstrators were arrested because they contravened an apartheid-era regulation that prohibits groups of more than 15 people demonstrating within 100 metres of parliament without permission. The Cape Town City Council refused to allow the anti-Suharto protest.

No action was taken against a pro-Suharto gathering — mostly Muslim schoolchildren — a few metres away as they waved tiny Indonesian flags. When Suharto arrived, he was surrounded by sweet smiling faces — a perfect photo opportunity.

COSATU spokesperson Nowetu Mpati angrily denounced the police action. "It is a violation of the constitutional right to demonstrate peacefully. At this time of our democracy, it is barbaric for police to act like that."

Mpati said the protest was in line with COSATU's national conference resolution to protest against Suharto's human rights abuses in Indonesia and East Timor. It was also meant to show support for President Nelson Mandela's efforts to resolve the conflict in East Timor.

The people of Indonesia had experienced the same repression and oppression that South Africans had felt under apartheid, Mpati said. "Solidarity knows no boundaries. Wherever Suharto goes in South Africa, people who feel strongly about the abuse of human rights will protest", she vowed.

The Pan Africanist Congress also criticised Suharto's visit.

Suharto was greeted by Mandela and 16 members of the cabinet. Following an hour-long meeting, Mandela emerged to describe the discussions with his "close friend" as "very fruitful". He thanked Suharto for his financial assistance to the ANC prior to the 1994 elections.

Suharto was also awarded South Africa's highest award, the Order of Good Hope.

Mandela indicated that East Timor had been raised during the talks. He said that he was confident progress had been made but refused to discuss the details. Speaking at a function at the presidential mansion, Tuynhuys, Mandela referred cryptically to South Africa's willingness "to help resolve problems that beset Indonesia, but only where this was required and within the context of multilateral institutions".

Economic relations topped the agenda. Two agreements — on trade and air links — were signed. On November 21, Suharto and South African foreign minister Alfred Nzo visited a trade fair at the Cape Town Civic Centre. Trade between South Africa and Indonesia has risen from virtually nothing five years ago to almost US$200 million.

Indonesian officials have expressed interest in buying the South African-made Rooivalk helicopter gunship. The Rooivalk was developed by the apartheid regime for use in its counter-insurgency wars against freedom fighters in Namibia, Mozambique and Angola.

During his visit to Jakarta in July, Mandela said, "If it becomes necessary to for us to supply arms for external defence to Indonesia, we will do so without hesitation".

On November 18, South African Communist Party deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin urged the government not to supply arms to Indonesia. Suharto's regime is "at war with it own people" and the people of East Timor. Any arms sales that result in further repression would be against South Africa's arms sales policy, he said.