In South Africa, Govan Mbeki keeps black resistance alive. Rumors are rife in South Africa that black leader Nelson Mandela will soon be freed. As last year's release of a Mandela colleague shows, just being back in the community can act as a significant rallying point for blacks.

Ask nearly anyone in the pathetically poor black townships here about Govan Mbeki and you get the same reply. ``Mbeki? He's a legend,'' says the head of New Brighton's library, looking anything but radical in a maroon tie and designer sunglasses. ``He's immortal. He's a symbol of hope.''

It has been just over a year since Mr. Mbeki - former chief of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), avowed communist, soft-spoken intellectual - was freed after spending 23 years in jail. Although barred from engaging in politics, he remains a shining beacon for blacks opposed to South Africa's segregationist apartheid system. Anti-apartheid activists say his very presence is a huge influence here in the area perhaps hardest hit by the government's repressive measures.

That the 78-year-old Mbeki still can affect the resistance movement - despite severe restrictions - says a lot about his stature in the black community. It also says a lot about the possible effect of releasing the most famous imprisoned ANC leader, Nelson Mandela. The analogy is on many people's minds because rumors of Mr. Mandela's imminent release are flying fast and furious these days.

One such story sent hundreds of reporters on a wild goose chase last Monday to Cape Town, where the 70-year-old Mandela is receiving medical treatment at a private clinic. Now, the latest rumors have it he will be freed today. Or tomorrow. Or on Christmas Eve.

Clearly the government in Pretoria is seriously considering releasing Mandela, who has been jailed since 1962. It seems spurred on by fears of unrest should he die in prison, and by threats of further economic sanctions from abroad. Political analysts say the dilemma is how to spring him - and perhaps the five other black ANC members who were convicted at the famous Rivonia sabotage trial - stripped of political power.

Slapping him with restrictions might do it, although analysts aren't certain Mandela would abide by them. Even if he did, the reverence for him is so great among blacks that just being back in the community could act as a significant rallying point. At least, that's what has happened to Mbeki.

This is the picture that emerges from a morning-long visit to his New Brighton home last week. The tall, dignified Mbeki - decked out in a polo shirt and beige trousers - drank tea and chatted with a steady stream of guests. None of what he said can be reported, however, even in foreign newspapers. Thus, this account is pieced together from interviews with friends, colleagues, and residents of this Indian Ocean town.

Mbeki, a former teacher and journalist, was sentenced along with the six top ANC leaders to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the white minority government in 1964. Sent to Robben Island prison in Cape Town's Table Bay, he and the Rivonia trialists - as they are known - became the senior mentors of ANC history and politics to the thousands of black prisoners who have been jailed there over the years.

Explains Anglican Rev. Mcebisi Xundu, ``They kept the struggle alive on the Island. So people who served six, seven years would come out, telling everyone these stories about Mandela, Mbeki, and the others.''

And those tales have captured the imagination of much of the black community. Take Eddie, a 22-year-old who grew up amid New Brighton's rotting garbage. He wasn't even born when the Rivonia trialists were put away; he never has seen Mandela nor heard Mbeki speak. Yet, he has no doubts about who are his leaders.

The trialists ``gave their lives for us,'' says Eddie, who wants to study social work. ``I'm inspired by their courage.''

So the emotional outpouring in the townships was tremendous when Mbeki was freed last November in what was seen as a test case for releasing Mandela and the others. Pretoria apparently became nervous, however, that Mbeki was promoting the ANC's image - an illegal act - and thus restricted him under the now 29-month-old state of emergency.

As a result he's not allowed to leave the Port Elizabeth area without permission; talk to more than 10 people at once; give interviews; publish any articles. (Some political analysts say he has adhered to his restraints so as not to jeopardize the release of his ANC colleagues, although the ban on travel is particularly painful. That's because Mbeki's son Thabo, a member of the ANC's executive committee, is in Lusaka, Zambia.)

So Mbeki spends his time receiving people in the bright red brick row house off New Brighton's main street. Mr. Xundu says the visitors come to demonstrate their solidarity with Mbeki; often there are so many he has to turn them away.

On a recent day, for instance, the following people turned up within the course of a few hours: a professor; a community worker; a young woman recently released from six months detention; two foreigners. A human rights lawyer also dropped in to whisk Mbeki off to an appointment, but it was canceled.

Colleagues are deliberately vague about Mbeki's current political role. But one activist describes it this way: If he could influence events from one corner of a remote island, then he clearly is going to have a big impact when he is among people. The walls in Mbeki's home may be thick, the activist says, but that doesn't keep his ideas from percolating out.

That was evident at a recent service at St. James Presbyterian Church in Zwide township. The hard wooden seats were filled with women wearing T-shirts that read: ``CHURCHES IN SOLIDARITY WITH WOMEN'' and ``25 YEARS OF REPRESSION.'' Some fanned themselves against the oppressive spring heat. Others hummed slow, haunting melodies. A preacher in a spiffy gray suit started railing against the government's repression, hollering about the people's real leaders.

(Although thousands of activists have been detained nationwide under the state of emergency, human rights workers say hardly a black home in Port Elizabeth and Eastern Cape province has been unaffected. Just about all local dissident organizations have been smashed and most activity has been forced underground.)

``Mbeki is our leader,'' whispered a young man with a soft beard and mournful eyes. ``He symbolizes unity. Though we can't read his words, we know he stands for helpless people.''

Many analysts say this is Mbeki's greatest strength: to act as a guiding light to keep the spirit of resistance alive - even in the face of overwhelming odds. It's a concept perhaps best articulated by Mbeki himself in a court application he filed to have the state of emergency and his restrictions lifted.

He quotes from the draft of a speech he never was allowed to deliver: ``Through all the physical hardships the deprivations of food and comfort and the estrangement from loving family and friends, there was a compensating fulfillment of knowing that I was pursuing a course and expressing loyalty to an ideal which has ennobled the condition of man from time immemorial.''

``I do not regret the experience; I make no apology for it,'' he continues. ``I did what I perceived I had to do.''

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