South Africa's President Pieter Botha took another calculated political step over the weekend by releasing two ailing, long-term African nationalist prisoners. Diplomats here see the unconditional freeing of Zephania Mothopeng, president of the outlawed Pan-Africanist Congress, and Harry Gwala, a stalwart of the rival African National Congress, as part of a complex balancing act on Mr. Botha's part.
According to these diplomats and political analysts, President Botha aims to, slowly and steadily, defuse world pressure for reforming in the apartheid system while at the same time containing the demands of white ultra-rightists at home.
A well-placed source in Botha's ruling National Party suggests that Saturday's releases were integral to the government's wider objective: creating a climate favorable to freeing anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela by gradually numbing black and white public opinion to his emancipation.
In line with these goals, Botha last week undertook or approved three major initiatives on three successive days.
Foreign Minister Roelof Botha announced acceptance of the American-mediated time-table for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, thus raising the prospect settlement of the dispute in neighboring Namibia.
The move burnished South Africa's recent, hard-won reputation for cooperation with the United States initiative to end the regional conflict, says analyst Andre du Pisani of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
The agreement could leave Botha open to ultra-right criticism that he has betrayed Namibia's 100,000 whites by agreeing to a UN-supervised election on a one man-one vote basis. But, Mr. du Pisani predicts, Botha's counter to that will be to stress his administration's success in ridding the sub-continent of the Cubans.
Also last week, Botha announced a reprieve for the ``Sharpeville six,'' five men and a woman sentenced to death for the murder of a black town councillor in 1984.
Their plight had aroused an international uproar, partly because they were convicted on grounds of associating themselves with the actions of a murderous mob, rather than with committing the murder itself. Their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
According to a well-placed National Party source, who asked not to be named, Botha had taken care to preempt and neutralize far-right criticism of the reprieve.
The source points out that Botha's act of clemency toward the six was counterbalanced by his extension of a similar reprieve to four white policemen who had been sentenced to death for murdering a black.
Finally, Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee, announced that Mr. Mandela would not go back to prison when his treatment for tuberculosis at a clinic near Cape Town came to an end. Instead, Mandela would be ``transferred to suitable, comfortable, and secure living accommodation where he will be able to receive family members more freely and on a continual basis.''
The announcement was part of the same process of assuaging international pressure without aggravating the far-right, the National Party source says.
As international demands for Mandela's release may be dampened by his phased movement away from prison, so the ultra-right as well as Mandela's supporters were conditioned to his pending freedom, he explains.
The National Party source also ventures some speculation on the source and reason for recent that Mandela was to be freed at a certain time and place: the government, in order to test public reaction.