Time to free Mandela

TWENTY-SIX years in prison have made Nelson Mandela the embodiment of unswerving resistance to tyranny. His name is invoked throughout the world by political figures who see in the African National Congress leader a symbol of rights denied and hope sustained. In his native South Africa, Mr. Mandela's fame weighs heavily on the government of President P.W. Botha. Mandela has resolutely rejected any arrangement for release that hints of compromise with the white-dominated government. He refused, even, the offer of a six-hour visit with his family on the occasion of his 70th birthday Monday, saying he wanted no special favors that are denied fellow prisoners.

From Mr. Botha's perspective, no option regarding Nelson Mandela is a good one. Officials fear his resumption of political activism if released; they fear a massive popular outcry if he is allowed to die in prison.

Even within South Africa's white establishment, people question the wisdom of holding the black leader any longer. A leading Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld, called this week for Mandela's release. The paper argued for negotiating with the ANC chief ``on the aspirations of his people'' before the opportunity was lost.

Whether freed or imprisoned, Nelson Mandela will remain a central force in the evolution of South African society. He started on a path of moderate opposition in the late 1940s, but his political views hardened as the government held dogmatically to apartheid. Finally, after the killing of 69 black protesters by the police at Sharpeville in 1960, Mandela turned to violent resistance.

His is a classic story of revolution. It's a story that is guiding a generation of black youth in South Africa.

Mandela should be released now. Politically difficult as it would be, the Botha government should take the steps needed to negotiate with him and thus give the revolutionary energy he generates a chance to become a force for constructive change.

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