Johannesburg — A startling irony confronts South Africans as they weigh the future of the anti-apartheid movement following Friday's conviction for treason of four of the movement's leaders. The charge of treason against the four was not based on specific acts of violence, but for helping to create the climate that in 1984 turned into violence in black townships.
The more than 1,500-page judgment against Patrick Lekota, Popo Molefe, Moses Chikane, and Thomas Manthatha was delivered in the same courtroom in Pretoria's Palace of Justice where Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was sent to jail for life nearly a quarter of century ago.
At a time of speculation that Pretoria will finally free Mr. Mandela, apartheid's most prominent opponent, imprisonment is likely for the four whom, in essence, the court decision identifies as the successors to Mandela's generation of black leaders.
One of the defendants had even spent some time in the Robben Island prison with Mandela, where - in the judge's phrase - he learned the history of the oppression of black people at ``Mandela's knee'' and ``learned his lessons very well.''
Political observers point out that the government is unlikely to gain much by jailing one group and releasing Mandela, revered as he is. The influential Congress of South African Trade Unions made the same point in its reaction to the decision. It declared that jailing leaders who had a crucial role to play in a negotiated settlement was a major blunder.
Obtaining their release could very well move quickly to the top of the agenda of the black opposition forces. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave notice of that when he said after Friday's judgment: ``If any of these people are sent to prison, I will not rest until I get them out.''
The controversial nature of the verdict in South Africa's longest trial will add impetus to demands for their release, as the Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, made clear.
It meant, he said, that anyone who was intelligent, informed, and who provided leadership to the black community risked indictment and conviction for treason.
The Pretoria trial judge, Justice Kees van Dijkhorst, still has to hear evidence for mitigating the sentences when that phase of the trial begins on Dec. 5. Execution is theoretically possible but considered extremely unlikely, since the defendants' actions didn't directly lead to loss of life.
Three of the convicted men, Mssrs. Lekota, Molefe, and Chikane, all occupied pivotal positions in the United Democratic Front. Before it was shackled by government restrictions in February and the detention and prosecution of its leaders, the UDF was South Africa's biggest extra-parliamentary opposition organization, embracing 600 groups with 2 million members.
Judge van Dijkhorst found that a call for the formation of a united front by the ANC president, Oliver Tambo, in January 1983 was a major factor in the emergence of the UDF that year. His finding of conspiracy between the UDF and the outlawed ANC was crucial to the treason verdict. He also concluded that a dominant part of the UDF leadership functioned as the internal wing of the ANC.
The UDF insists that though it endorses the political goals of the ANC, it is not a creation of the ANC and it does not advocate violence.
Lekota was described by the judge as ``very pro-ANC.'' In 1976, he was one of nine young black-consciousness leaders jailed for conspiring to commit acts capable of endangering the law and order.
By the same logic, even Manthatha, who has a long history of deep commitment to the black consciousness philosophy, can be placed in the ANC mold, albeit imperfectly and not altogether comfortably.
Manthatha was a founder member of the Soweto Civic Association, an affiliate organization of the UDF. Moreover, according to the judge, he identified with what the judge said is the overall UDF aim of causing the downfall of the government by making South Africa ungovernable through mass action.