THE imminent release by South Africa of eight prominent black prisoners could help forestall stronger economic sanctions against the country and open the door for eventual black-white negotiations. The unconditional freeing of the eight - including five veteran leaders of the outlawed African National Congress - was announced by President Frederik de Klerk on Tuesday. The announcement was widely welcomed by the ANC and other anti-apartheid leaders, white liberals, and Western leaders.
The action was expected to lead in the near future to the release of the most promiment jailed ANC leader, Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela reportedly held separate talks with the five ANC leaders and government officials Tuesday, hours before the release was announced.
He watched the announcement on state-controlled television in his prison home near Cape Town while receiving a visit from Albertina Sisulu, wife of Walter Sisulu, the most prominent of the eight men to be freed.
President De Klerk said in his statement that the eight would be released ``as soon as the necessary formalities could be dealt with,'' and that these could take some time.
A prison department spokesman said there would be no restrictions of any kind on any of the eight. But he added that it was too early to give the details of the time and venue of the releases.
Ismail Ayob, Mandela's lawyer, said he expected the release of the eight to be staggered over ``the next few days.''
``Whether the Government likes it or not, this amounts to the de facto legalization of the African National Congress,'' says political scientist Mark Swilling of the independent Center for Policy Studies.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, due to hold talks with President De Klerk in Pretoria today, told an anti-apartheid rally in Cape Town Tuesday night that Mr. De Klerk had been ``forced'' to release them. He demanded further steps.
``We are pleased our leaders are out, but not satisfied, as many others remain behind locked doors,'' he said. ``What is the use of releasing them when we still have a state of emergency and when our organizations are still banned?'' he asked.
But the two major anti-apartheid groups - the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - described the releases as a ``massive victory.''
The bold move, which amounts to the most dramatic concession yet to black opinion by the country's white rulers, was made a week before the Commonwealth heads of government summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Government officials appeared confident the release would forestall the threat of tighter economic sanctions, which are to be considered by Commonwealth leaders.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded immediately to the announcement.
``It is a major step in the right direction,'' she said. ``Naturally we all hope that it will lead to the release of Nelson Mandela and open the way for negotiations on a new constitution for South Africa.''
There was no immediate reaction form the US State Department.
The Pretoria statement said that in discussions with Mandela he had ``confirmed that his own release was not now on the agenda.''
In addition to 77-year-old Sisulu, the former ANC secretary-general, those to be freed include four regional ANC leaders - Ahmed Kathrada (60), a leading Indian activist; Andrew Mlangeni (63), a former leader of ANC in Soweto; Raymond Mhlaba (69); and Elias Motsoaledi (65).
The five have all served 25 years of a life sentence for their part in a plot to overthrow the government.
The other three men to be freed are Wilton Mkwayi (65), who briefly led the ANC's military wing - Umkhonto We Sizwe - after the others' arrests; Oscar Mpetha (80), a veteran trade unionist serving a five-year sentence for ``terrorism''; and Jafta Masemola (61), the only member of the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) serving a life sentence.
The PAC was formed from an ANC breakaway in 1959 by a faction that opposed the ANC's decision to allow white communists to join the movement.
The decision to release political prisoners addresses the major demand on the agendas of the ANC, Western governments, and internal anti-apartheid groups.
It eliminates some preconditions set by ANC leaders for dialogue with South Africa's rulers.
But if the momentum for talks is to be maintained, it will have to be followed soon by Mandela's release, the legalization of the ANC, and the lifting of the 40-month-old nationwide emergency.
The first step toward the freeing of the eight was taken July 5, when former President Pieter Botha unexpectedly met Mandela at his official residence in Cape Town.
This was followed in recent weeks by a softer government line allowing mass anti-apartheid demonstrations in the country's towns and cities, apparently part of what De Klerk calls ``the need to create an atmosphere conducive to dialogue.''
It also represents a dramatic victory for the politicians over the senior security officials of the armed forces, police and intelligence, who dominated official decision-making under the former administration.
These ``securocrats'' have always argued that the risks implicit in freeing Mandela - particularly an uncontrollable upsurge of black emotion - are much too great.
The politicians have argued that the consequences of Mandela dying in jail would be far worse. During past weeks, government officials appear to have conceded that Mandela, with his enormous stature and following beyond ANC ranks, holds the key to a peaceful political settlement.
``The question to ask,'' says analyst Swilling, ``is whether this is the first moment in pre-negotiations. I believe it is.''