Johannesburg — The release from prison of the African National Congress (ANC) stalwart, Govan Mbeki, is only the opening move in a carefully conceived gambit by the South African government. While President Pieter Botha has tried to portray the liberation of Mr. Mbeki as part of a routine procedure under which remission is granted to all eligible prisoners, statements by his own Cabinet ministers have made it clear that it is part of a wider game plan in which political considerations are paramount.
Mbeki's release, Nov. 5, was the first installment of a phased liberation of political prisoners planned to culminate in the emergence from Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town of ANC leader, Nelson Mandela, according to diplomatic sources and recent statements made in the Afrikaan's newspaper Beeld. Mr. Mandela is the most prominent of those accused of sabotage in a 1964 trial. Mandela, Mbeki, and six co-members of the ``high command'' of the ANC's underground army, were jailed for life.
If Mbeki's return does not rekindle turbulence in the black townships, and if there is little opposition from the politically dominant whites, more ANC leaders are likely to be released, together with a leader of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
The immediate aim is to usher Mr. Mandela out the jail door, either after, or at the same time as, PAC president Zephania Mothopeng. But freeing these two men is a means to further ends. Two top-level officials have said releasing them could help facilitate an internal settlement - statements interpreted here as referring to government efforts to get prominent black leaders to take part in President Botha's proposed ``National Council.''
The first, and perhaps, most important of the government's objectives is to persuade Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the 1.6-million strong Inkatha Movement to serve on the council. According to Mr. Botha's plan, the council would be a forum where white and black leaders debate and plan a new constitution for all South Africans.
Most credible black leaders, have shied away from participation in the council, fearing that it may be a maneuver to co-opt them into salvaging a revised form of white hegemony. Chief Buthelezi, whose presence on the council is seen as vital to its success, says the release of Mandela and Mr. Mothopeng is necessary for his agreement to participate.
Thus, the anticipated release of Mandela is integral to Botha's hopes for an internal settlement with black leaders who have stood aloof from the guerrilla struggle waged by the ANC and, to a much lesser extent, the PAC.
But, as Deputy Minister Stoffel van Der Merwe, remarked in a press interview recently, there is another objective: to ``demythologize'' the ANC.
The ANC has been outlawed since 1960. Most of its leaders have been in jail or exile since 1964. Over the years, however, the public has forgotten neither the ANC or these leaders. Instead, they have grown in stature and mystique.
The government now wants to reverse the process, to ``demystify'' the ANC and its leadership. The pro-government Afrikaans newspaper Beeld said in an editorial on Mbeki's release: ``The Mbeki myth has suddenly become a human who, like all citizens, must be law-abiding and thus peaceful.''
Demystification requires the reintegration of the ANC leaders into public political life, where they can make mistakes. That, in turn, infers the unbanning of the ANC. Mbeki's release is a test case. The ban seems to have been partially lifted, in practice if not in a strict legal sense, on him, notwithstanding his openly professed commitment to the ANC and the South African Communist Party.
But, as Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee noted, Mbeki has not been prevented from speaking on behalf of these organizations, although the restriction prohibiting the press from publishing his remarks is still in force. When Mbkei is joined by his colleagues, the de facto lifting of the ban will become more apparent.
The 17-month-old state of emergency is likely to be left intact, however. That will put the ANC in the same position as the legal, though fiercely harassed, United Democratic Front.
The government's objective in easing the restrictions on the ANC or on some of its leaders is to wean it from its longstanding commitment to ``armed struggle.'' It is also to lure at least some of its leaders, into participation in approved forums including the National Council.
Mbeki was understandably circumspect in his remarks about armed struggle, not wanting to jeopardize the possible release of Mandela. But he had been out of jail for only three days when he made his feelings plain on the National Council. It was a ``dummy institution,'' no different from dummy institutions offered to blacks in the past, he said.
In the past, the ANC has said it would suspend its guerrilla campaign during negotiations with Botha, on condition that troops and police were removed from the black townships. Botha, however, is not offering to negotiate with the ANC, or to withdraw security forces from the townships. For now, he is merely ready to give released ANC leaders a bit of freedom.
For the ANC to renounce violence would be to reduce itself to a state of helplessness, according to a 1986 mission to South Africa of members of the British Commonwealth to South Africa. First, they say, there must be sufficient indications of Pretoria's readiness to negotiate the transition to nonracial sovereignty.