Johannesburg — It was just a news conference, until Winnie Mandela arrived. The celebration that followed may help explain the South African government's mixed signals about freeing Mrs. Mandela's husband, Nelson Mandela, after 23 years in captivity.
Mr. Mandela, an early leader of the outlawed African National Congress -- the most prominent black nationalist group -- is a unifying symbol among South African blacks.
The authorities are afraid that Mandela may die in prison. They know they could win political credit abroad by releasing him. Some officials say they feel Mandela's release could deprive him of the symbolic power he enjoys in jail -- and sow tension among those new leaders who have arisen during his detention.
But the government must also weigh the possibility that Mandela could, in the phrase of one local newsmagazine, ``set the political stage alight.'' He could give the protest movement what it has lacked -- a strong unifying voice.
As Mrs. Mandela arrived at the Roman Catholic convent where the news conference was held last Friday, dozens of women and children from the adjacent black township of Kagiso converged. Stomping their feet, they held clenched fists in the air and chanted in Zulu: ``We shall persevere! We shall persevere!''
The gaze of one middle-aged woman, Sister Bernard Ncube, conveyed Mrs. Mandela's special appeal.
Sister Bernard had been freed hours earlier from her sixth spell in South African prison -- this time for 14 days. She was busy accepting hugs of welcome from friends when Mrs. Mandela arrived and the chanting began. The sister's eyes suddenly seemed to glow. A smile spread across her face. She raised a loosely closed fist and intoned in a weak treble: ``Winnie! Winnie!''
Mrs. Mandela has become a leader in her own right -- ``first lady'' of black opposition to apartheid. She captivates followers with a quick smile, a look and energy far younger than her 51 years, and a public voice of articulate and understated self-confidence.
But even the supporters who held the news conference Friday, to denounce what they called official ``harassment'' of Mrs. Mandela, stressed that her special appeal owes much to her marriage certificate.
``She is the wife of a great patriot,'' said one speaker.
Another called on the authorities to ``give Winnie her freedom so that she can pave the way for what is ahead -- the release of Nelson.''
Although South Africa provisionally dropped charges against Mrs. Mandela yesterday for violating an order restricting her movements, it is unclear when or whether her husband will be released.
President Pieter Botha recently suggested that Mandela's release be traded for that of Soviet dissidents Anatoly Shcharansky and Andrei Sakharov; and of a South African citizen held by Angola for allegedly trying to sabotage oil installations.
Mr. Shcharansky was freed last week in an apparently unrelated East-West prisoner swap -- igniting a spate of rumors that Mandela would imminently go free. But there has been no official indication so far that he is about to be let out. Last month, Botha dropped the explicit demand that Mandela renounce violence before going free.
But some local news reports have said that the government wants to append some sort of safety catch to his release -- perhaps a commitment, for instance, that he stay out of South Africa, at least temporarily.
This, say Mr. Mandela's friends and backers, will not wash.