Sway of South African security officials thwarts prison releases

Hopes aroused by the release from prison last month of African National Congress stalwart Govan Mbeki have come to naught, say political analysts across a wide spectrum in South Africa. When Mr. Mbeki, a former chairman of the ANC and a member of the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), emerged from prison on Robben Island after 23 years, diplomats interpreted his release as a tentative move by the government toward the release of other political prisoners. The aim, they said, was the eventual release of Nelson Mandela, and possibly talks with the ANC.

Political analysts and opposition politicians now are convinced there will be no more releases in the near future.

Since Mbeki's release on Nov. 6, the police have seized on his public declarations of continued allegiance to the ANC and the SACP, to place tighter controls on him, says a senior South African official. They have thwarted his attempts to hold rallies in various cities and most recently served a restraining order, prohibiting him from leaving the Port Elizabeth area and from talking to journalists.

According to the senior official, these are signs that the security forces have reasserted their domination in the decision-making process. Both the police and the defense force are strongly represented in the state security council, which is where crucial decisions are made.

The security police chief, Gen. Johann van der Merwe, accused Mbeki of using his freedom to promote the ANC aims.

Koos van Wyk, a senior lecturer in political studies at Rand Afrikaans University, believes that top professional policemen were never happy about Mbeki's release, and they used the first signs that he might get a tumultuous welcome in the townships to clamp down: One police report anticipated a crowd of 100,000 at a rally planned in Cape Town.

The senior official did not think, however, that members of the cabinet who have pushed for a more innovative approach toward releasing longtime political prisoners have been totally eclipsed. They were outvoted in this case, but they have not given up the struggle, he said.

Justice and Prisons Minister H.J. Coetsee is believed to favor releasing Mr. Mandela, according to the senior official and Helen Suzman, a veteran opposition parliamentarian who has visited Mandela with Mr. Coetsee's permission in the past.

``He does not say so in so many words,'' says Mrs. Suzman. ``But he makes it clear by winks and nudges that he would like to see Mr. Mandela out of prison.''

Coetsee, according to the senior official, was the man behind the decision to change the criterion for the release of political prisoners in August. Previously, prisoners had first to renounce violence - a condition rejected by both Mbeki and Mandela who say that the onus is on the government to dismantle apartheid and lift the ban on the ANC. After August, prisoners could be released if that move was seen to be in the interest of the state.

Colin Eglin, leader of a minority opposition party in Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party, is convinced that the government failed to see that Mbeki's release was ``part of a political process,'' - that, as a staunch ANC campaigner, he would seek to advance its ends.

When it became clear that his release was viewed not as a single political event but as part of a widespread process that was generating a great deal of excitement, ``they took fright,'' says Mr. Eglin.

Eglin conceded, however, that there were officials who realized that the release of Mbeki would have political repercussions. Such people, he says, ``make an input, but they are not dominant.''

The preponderant influence in the upper echelons of government is that of men who, while they believe they can contain the ANC's guerrilla war, they fear the dangers of popular revolt and, consequently, any factor which may stir the masses, said Eglin.

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