Nelson Mandela has spent more than 20 years in a South African jail -- unseen and unheard by a generation of blacks. But thousands of blacks gathered in Soweto yesterday to hear a message from this leader of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).
The message, delivered by Mandela's daughter Zindzi Mandela, was a firm rejection of an offer of freedom made by South African President Pieter Botha.
Mr. Botha has offered to free Mandela, who is serving a life sentence for sabotage, if he will ``unconditionally reject violence as a political instrument.''
But Ms. Mandela told listeners that ``only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. . . .'' She quoted her father as saying, ``I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you the people are not free.''
Despite Mandela's rejection of Botha's offer, some analysts still feel negotiations on Mandela's freedom are possible.
In his message, Mandela said, ``I am not a violent man.'' He said he and his ANC colleagues had written to the government as early as l952 asking for discussions to solve the country's problems. Further appeals were made to subsequent white governments to hold a national convention so that whites and blacks could decide on the country's political future.
These efforts proved vain, his statement said. (The ANC was banned in l960.) ``It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle.''
Mandela called on Botha to renounce violence, dismantle apartheid, legalize the ANC, free political prisoners, permit exiles to return to South Africa, and grant blacks the right to free political activity.
After the ANC was banned, Mandela and others founded an ANC military wing. He and wing leaders were jailed in '64 when police found their headquarters.
Mandela's message was read at a rally by the United Democratic Front. The fact that he chose the rally as a forum suggests the organization has his blessing.