Johannesburg — The return of Nelson Mandela to prison does not mean that Pretoria has abandoned its interest in freeing him on certain conditions. The government's problem is to devise a formula to free Mr. Mandela that does not add impetus to the rebellion in the country's black townships. Pretoria would like to release Mandela in a way that reduces his stature as a black nationalist leader.
Mandela is a leader of the banned African National Congress, a group seeking the overthrow of South Africa's government. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 1964 for sabotage.
Mandela was returned to jail Saturday from the hospital, where he was recovering from prostrate gland surgery. His three-week hospital stay was longer than what is normal for that type of operation. The length of his hospital stay fueled intense speculation that he was about to be released.
The South African authorities would clearly like to release Mandela, and are anxious that he not die while in prison, an event that could further fan the fires of rebellion. It was speculated that one face-saving way to release the black nationalist leader would have been to do so directly from the hospital, claiming the release was for humanitarian reasons. The government has made previous offers to release Mandela conditionally.
The latest known offer was made in February. President Pieter W. Botha offered to release Mandela on condition that he renounce violence as a means of achieving political objectives. Mandela rejected the offer because it required him to renounce armed resistance to apartheid while Botha and his government were allowed the right to use violence in defense of the status quo.
``Let him renounce violence,'' Mandela said at the time. ``Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people's organization, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished, or exiled for their opposition to apartheid.''
Before Botha's February offer the government devised a different model for Mandela's release which would reconcile its desire to free him with its need to immobilize him politically by releasing him into Transkei, one of South Africa's so-called independent black ``homelands.'' The African National Congress fiercely opposes Transkei's existence as a supposedly sovereign state.
The President of Transkei, Chief Kaiser Matanzima, who is a nephew of Mandela's, was willing to accept Mandela. But Mandela firmly rejected the offer, partly because he saw it as a ploy to give credibility to Transkei, which is shunned as an ``illegitimate child of apartheid policy.''
The latest conditional offer -- and the one around which last week's speculation centered -- was that he be released into exile on condition that he agree not to return to South Africa. There is no direct evidence that such an offer was made, although ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, gave some credence to it by reportedly confirming that they expected him there more than a week ago.
Release into exile is a theoretical option for the government. But Mandela's wife, Winnie, has since declared that it is unacceptable to her husband.
Mandela implicitly rejected the offer in advance in February when he said, ``Only free men negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.''
The authorities are left with two options: either to release Mandela under a banning order restricting his movements and, possibly, banish him to a remote part of the country; or to release him unconditionally.
The first option was used against Robert Sobukwe, the former leader of the outlawed Pan-Africanist Congress, when he was released in 1969. Mr. Sobukwe, who died in 1978 while still under an order restricting him to the town of Kimberley, was also offered a one-way passport into exile. He turned down the offer.
Times have changed. Where Sobukwe and black South Africa acquiesced in the restrictions imposed on him, there is no guarantee that Mandela and the new generation of young blacks will do the same.
That leaves the last option, unconditional freedom for Mandela, a move that would imply freedom to advance the aims of the ANC. But there is no evidence that Botha is desperate enough to consider that step. The level of resistance and international opposition to the prevailing order would have to increase before that is an option.
Meanwhile, Mandela remains in prison. But he continues to exercise a large and growing influence on the deliberations of free men debating the course of South Africa's future in the corridors of power in Pretoria, in the deprived black townships of South Africa, and in exiled circles in the capitals of the world.