PRETORIA, South Africa -- The South African government announced sweeping reforms of its discredited police force yesterday, including the forced retirement of one-third of the whites-only top command, clearing the way for promotion of the country's first black generals.
Other measures announced here by Hernus Kriel, minister of law and order, include creation of a permanent board of inquiry headed by a judge to investigate charges of police misconduct.
Mr. Kriel said the shake-up was intended to restore public confidence in a force that has been accused of everything from wholesale incompetence to the routine practice of torture and murder.
The African National Congress charged last night that the announcement amounted to "a face lift, not a substantial change," but other critics of the police said that the apparent purge of top officers represented the first credible effort to prepare the police force for work under majority rule.
"This seems to be an attempt to get rid of some of the old hard-liners to clear the way for new officers who will be more committed to reforming the institution," said Laurie Nathan, a Cape Town policing specialist.
Among the 18 generals retiring, Mr. Nathan said, were the head of police training, the deputy head of the riot squad, and the head of forensics -- three areas where police performance has been sharply criticized.
Five of the 18 had announced their retirements before yesterday.
"I certainly don't see it as cosmetic," said Brian Currin, executive director of Lawyers for Human Rights.
The announcement was clearly timed to help create a climate for restarting negotiations on a new, non-racial political order.
The ANC, the main representative of black interests, broke off talks in June, in part because of what it considered the state's indifference to -- or complicity in -- violence in black townships.
Back-channel discussions are already under way between the ANC's secretary-general, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Roelf Meyer, the Cabinet minister in charge of constitutional affairs, aimed at removing obstacles to full-scale negotiations.
The government also confirmed yesterday that the ANC has been meeting informally with senior military officers, including the chief of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. C. P. van der Westhuizen.
A report yesterday in a Johannesburg newspaper, the Star, cited unnamed sources as saying one topic at these meetings was the danger posed by present and former military officers bent on sabotaging the transition to black rule.
The threat of such a secret network -- commonly referred to as a "third force" -- on the fringes of the military has long worried both black and white leaders.
Lately it has been the focus of new attention because of sensational charges by a former military intelligence officer, Col. Gert Hugo, who turned on the military after being court-martialed for theft.
Colonel Hugo is the most senior of several defectors in recent years who have charged that a network of rogue military officers is conducting assassinations and fomenting violence among blacks to undermine the transition to majority rule.
His description of the "third force" was reported earlier this week in the Christian Science Monitor and the Independent in London, and it received wide attention here.
Defense Minister Gene Louw said yesterday the subject of the "third force" may have "cropped up" in meetings with the ANC. But he denied the Star's report that General van der Westhuizen proposed that the military and the black group collaborate in rooting out the saboteurs.
Although more than half of the 114,000-member South African police force is black, there are fewer than 100 blacks among the 5,000 commissioned officers. Until yesterday, they have been barred from the rank of general.
The force, already widely mistrusted in black townships, has suffered a series of humiliations in recent weeks.
Last month a team of British experts headed by Peter A. J. Waddington, director of criminal justice studies at the University of Reading in England, issued a scathing report on police ineptitude in handling the massacre of more than 40 blacks in Boipatong township.
A few days later the country's most prominent independent pathologist, Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, opened his files on more than 200 cases of prisoners who died in police custody. Most, he said, had been murdered by policemen.
In the past two months South African judges have dismissed charges in two mass murder cases, complaining that the police forced confessions and mishandled evidence.
Most critics agree that the police force has never entirely recovered from its design as a white-run institution entrusted with enforcing apartheid.
Mr. Kriel said that several black officers would begin a special monthlong training course next month and be promoted to major generals if they passed.
He said the government was automatically raising the seniority of black officers who have been systematically denied promotions because of their race.
Independent experts said the promotion of blacks would have an important symbolic impact on blacks who now see the force as defending only white interests.
"The new South African police force is going to have to be impartial not only in practice but in appearance," Mr. Nathan said.
But he cautioned that blacks who are eligible for high police rank are themselves products of the system.
"These men may be imbued with the attitudes of the institution," Mr. Nathan said. "The fact that they are black doesn't necessarily mean they are more enlightened."
Mr. Kriel also said the police would be restructured to increase local control and stress community relations, and that training would be revamped to combat racist attitudes and brutal behavior.