Release of Prisoners Stirs Deep Feelings in S. Africa

ROBERT MCBRIDE, the man whose freedom the African National Congress (ANC) demanded as the price for last weekend's summit on violence, walked hand-in-hand through the gates of Westville prison here yesterday with his wife Paula, whom he married on death row three years ago.

Mr. McBride is one of 150 prisoners jailed for politically motivated crimes who were freed in a deal between the government and the ANC that opened the way for the weekend accord on violence and renewed negotiations.

McBride symbolizes South Africa's painful transition from its violent and racist past to a new beginning. He was serving a life sentence for detonating a bomb outside Magoo's Bar in Durban in 1986 that killed three white women and injured more than 20 people. In the crossfire

At the time of the bombing, the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), did not have a policy of attacking civilians. But then-ANC President Oliver Tambo told a 1985 conference of the ANC that it was inevitable that civilians would get caught in the crossfire of the escalating war against apartheid.

McBride was sentenced to death for murder at the end of a highly publicized trial in 1987. His sentence was commuted to life last year by President Frederik de Klerk.

The government had vigorously resisted freeing McBride but bowed to sustained international and domestic political pressure last week when ANC President Nelson Mandela made it clear that a summit on violence would not be held unless McBride were freed.

On the eve of his release, McBride was attacked by white prisoners wielding a large pair of scissors and was rescued only by the intervention of black and white prisoners. The prison authorities have not been able to explain how the attack took place.

"President De Klerk has said that he wishes to release us as a sign of reconciliation," McBride told an enthusiastic reception by ANC supporters after he was released.

"It is on this understanding that I would like to contribute to a new South Africa. So my whole function in the ANC will be to foster reconciliation," said McBride, a soft-spoken young man of mixed race. His white wife, Paula, and members of his family stood by his side.

Paula Leyden McBride, who works for Lawyers for Human Rights, is the daughter of a former director of the Anglo American Corporation. Since their marriage she has campaigned ceaselessly for his release.

As McBride received a hero's welcome outside Westville prison, another controversial prisoner was also released. Barend Strydom is a right-wing former policemen who shot dead eight black civilians in Pretoria in 1988. Quid pro quo

ANC leaders said that Mr. Strydom's case was not discussed at the summit and his release was a unilateral act by the government. Strydom was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence also was later commuted to life imprisonment.

The trial judge who sentenced Strydom to death eight times said before handing down his decision: "He was worse than a terrorist. He's prepared to shoot people while laughing and looking them in the eye."

McBride said that the weekend summit between De Klerk and Mr. Mandela had brought the ANC closer to its goals.

"While I have been released from prison, I am not yet free.... We still haven't got our votes; we are still second-class citizens," he said.

McBride renounced violence during his second year in prison in 1988. "I can never expect the families of those who died to forget ... but reconciliation is not about forgetting our pain, it is about forgiveness," he wrote in a memorandum from prison.

But in an answer to a question from a reporter yesterday, he said that he would do the same as he had done in 1986 (detonate the bomb) if the same conditions existed now.

"If the situation was the same as in 1985, I would take up arms again," McBride said. "I can understand the feelings of bitterness [of the victims and their relatives], but you must remember that what took place there was not because we were bloodthirsty. It - and all the other acts - was done on the instructions of the ANC ... to achieve peace and democracy in South Africa.... The most important thing now is reconciliation and to think of the next generation."

McBride emerged from the prison with ANC Deputy President Walter Sisulu. He was presented at an ANC reception as a symbol of reconciliation and hope for a democratic and nonracial South Africa.

Mr. Sisulu said that McBride's release and that of two other commanders of the ANC military wing freed last weekend marked a turning point in the negotiating process.

"Whatever Comrade McBride did, he did not only under the instructions of Umkhonto we Sizwe but on behalf of the entire leadership of the ANC," Sisulu said to loud cheers from a lively hall of ANC supporters.

"That is why Mandela said that there could be no summit until McBride and the others were freed."

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