Johannesburg — The protest march on South Africa's Pollsmoor prison, planned for today, was intended to deliver a message of solidarity to a man whom most of the country's restive black youth have never seen: Nelson Mandela. The march was to have been led by the Rev. Allan Boesak, an opponent of apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation. But Dr. Boesak was detained in Cape Town yesterday by South African police.
Mr. Mandela, the son of an African tribal chief, has spent the last 23 years in prison. Mandela is leader of the banned African National Congress which seeks to overthrow South Africa's white minority government.
A charismatic and enterprising leader, he was nicknamed the ``black pimpernel'' for his ability to evade arrest for nearly 18 months in 1961-62.
But Mandela the prisoner is as much a problem to the authorities as Mandela the activist at large. His continued incarceration has made him the focus of increasing agitation, both at home and abroad.
The dilemma facing the government is how to release Mandela so as to diminish rather than compound its problems. So far it has failed to find the formula.
Mandela has spurned offers for release into the care of Chief Kaiser Matanzima, his nephew. Chief Matanzima is the president of Transkei, one of South Africa's so-called independent homelands.
Mandela has also rejected offers of freedom from the government on the condition that he renounce violence.
The black activist was first sentenced to jail for five years in November 1962 for inciting blacks to strike and for leaving the country illegally. Later, in July 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted in a separate trial for sabotage.
He has been the center of a major controversy over the past week because of his reported unqualified rejection of a national convention of South African leaders to draw up a new constitution for South Africa.
``There is no alternative to taking up arms,'' he is reported to have have said in an interview with Americans John Lofton and Cal Thomas, who were traveling with the leader of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, during his recent trip to South Africa. ``There is no room for peaceful struggle,'' Mandela reportedly said to the columnists, who were given special permission to interview Mandela by South African President Pieter W. Botha. (The government has forbidden Mandela to speak to the press.)
In February, Mr. Botha offered to release Mandela on the condition that he renounce violence. Mandela made clear in his rejection of the offer that it is apartheid, not an inclination toward violence per se, which has left no room for peaceful struggle.
Recalling that the now outlawed African National Congress (ANC) had called on successive South African prime ministers to discuss peaceful resolution of South Africa's conflict, he said: ``It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle.''
The ANC decided to embark on an ``armed struggle'' in June 1961. The decision followed the banning of the organization in April 1960 after an attempt by Mandela to organize a national strike in support of a national convention was met by massive force from the state and the arrest of thousands of suspected ANC sympathizers.
``Let Botha show that he is different to [Daniel] Malan, Strijdom, and [Hendrik] Verwoerd [three of Botha's predecessors].
``Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle violence. Let him unban . . . the ANC. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished, or exiled for their opposition to apartheid,'' Mandela said in his February statement.
Mandela's reluctant shift from nonviolent to violent resistance is highlighted by his prominent role in the 1952 campaign of defiance of ``unjust laws,'' based on Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of passive resistance. It was crushed by the police under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which provided for the flogging and jailing of resisters. Mandela was sentenced to jail for nine months under the Suppression of Communism Act for his role in the campaign. Although his sentence was suspended, he was banned
by decree from attending gatherings or leaving the Johannesburg area.
Mandela has been portrayed as a communist by South Africa's governors, a charge that Mandela denies.
At his policy speech in Durban recently, Botha quoted from a document ``in Mr. Mandela's handwriting'' which, he said, was produced during Mandela's trial in 1964. In the document, Botha recalled, Mandela said: ``We Communist Party members are the most advanced revolutionaries in modern history. . . .''
However, Botha did not add that, although written by Mandela, the document was not an expression of his own views. The defense counsel pointed out at the trial that the words were a summary of a communist declaration.
The defense explanation of the document was accepted by the court.
Mandela did, however, define his attitude toward communism in a statement from the dock. His position had shifted from that of a strongly anticommunist black nationalist in the early 1940s to that of a pragmatic nationalist prepared to cooperate with communists in the pursuit of common goals.
After denying that he was a communist, Mandela said: ``I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.'' He conceded, however, that -- in common with many African leaders -- he had been influenced by Marxist thought.
He then added: ``From my reading of Marxist literature and from conversations with Marxists, I have gained the impression that communists regard the parliamentary system of the West as undemocratic and reactionary. But, on the contrary, I am an admirer of such a system.''
Mandela ended his statement with a final declaration of faith: ``I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society. . . . It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.''
When Mandela made that statement, his life was literally at stake since sabotage was a capital offense. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and even from jail, has continued to exert great influence over South Africa's political life.