Mandela Release: Watershed for South Africa

Long-awaited step seen as boosting the prospects for a negotiated political settlement and a new constitution

NELSON MANDELA, the embodiment of black South African's hopes for a future beyond apartheid, walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison yesterday, a free man after 27 years behind bars. More than a thousand jubilant supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and anti-apartheid groups lined the streets outside the prison as hundreds of newsmen thronged the gate for the first glimpse of the world's most famous political prisoner.

The air of euphoria was shared by the vast majority of South Africans, including many whites.

The legendary activist was met by his wife, Winnie Mandela - who herself faced decades of persecution and internal banishment because of her loyalty both to Mandela and his political cause.

From the prison, Mandela was driven to the Grand Parade, traditional meeting place of Cape Town's mixed-race community, where he addressed a crowd of tens of thousands from the Mayor's balcony.

Mandela's release, which was first announced by President Frederik de Klerk on Saturday, marks a watershed in the country's troubled political history.

Mandela and seven of his colleagues - who have all been freed - were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for their role in a conspiracy to overthrow the minority white government by force.

For four decades they were portrayed as ruthless terrorists bent on imposing a Marxist dictatorship on South Africa.

But for the past year, Mandela - who founded the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, after the ANC had pursued nonviolent protest for 49 years - has been the chief mediator in efforts to bring the government and ANC to dialogue.

``Not until my people have achieved political equality, economic equality, and social equality can we begin to relax the struggle,'' said Mandela in a pre-release interview with the South African Press Association.

But he added that ``the beginning of the end'' of the ANC's 78-year-old liberation struggle was in sight, and he called on all South Africans to work for a common destiny. ``That can only be achieved through a nonracial society and not one in which whites continue to demand special political treatment,'' Mandela said.

Mr. De Klerk's announcement came a week after a dramatic speech to the opening of Parliament in which he legalized the anti-apartheid opposition.

De Klerk has gone most of the way to meeting the ANC's requirements for creating a climate conducive to negotiations. He has also vowed to scrap a 40-month-old nationwide state of emergency - the last major obstacle to talks - as soon as ``stability'' has returned to the country.

The ANC is also insisting that all political prisoners - including those convicted of violent common law crimes - should be freed and a general amnesty extended to exiles. It also wants repressive laws under the Internal Security Act scrapped.

In recent days, government officials have said these demands - and remaining apartheid laws - are negotiable.

Although the right-wing opposition has accused the president of capitulating to ANC demands, De Klerk denied working to anybody's checklists. He said he was doing what he believed to be in the best interests of South Africa.

Yet De Klerk has closely followed the eight preconditions for negotiation laid down by the ANC in the so-called Harare Declaration. That document, with some modifications, won unanimous support from the UN General Assembly in December.

The first photographs of Mandela in more than 27 years - standing next to De Klerk when they met on Friday evening - were splashed across the pages of the main Sunday newspapers.

His release boosts the growing momentum in South Africa for a negotiated settlement. It had been set by black politicians as the minimum gesture from De Klerk to unlock a process of interracial dialogue.

His freedom has also been the major criterion for the lifting of economic sanctions against South Africa by the United States, the European Community, and the Commonwealth.

After Saturday's sudden announcement of the impending release, ANC spokesman Tom Sebina said at the organization's headquarters in exile in Lusaka that he was stunned and delighted. Anti-apartheid groups had exuberant celebrations.

However, five people were killed and 45 injured Saturday in disturbances in a black township near Johannesburg, police said. A spokesman said people were injured when officers used tear gas and fired shotgun pellets to disperse a crowd.

US President George Bush congratulated De Klerk by telephone and invited him to visit Washington. President Bush has indicated he will also invite Mandela to hold talks with him.

Euphoric reaction flowed in from opposition politicians, businessmen and churchmen. The only sour note came from the right-wing opposition.

``As far as I am concerned Mandela is now governing South Africa,'' said an angry Koos van der Merwe, senior legislator of the far-right-wing Conservative Party on hearing of Mandela's release.

The Conservatives, who represent about 30 percent of the white population but less than five percent of the overall population, have vowed to block De Klerk's reforms with a sustained campaign of resistance aimed at forcing another election within the parameters of white politics.

The neofascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement staged a protest march on government buildings in Pretoria and a crowd of about 2,000 chanted, ``Hang Mandela.''

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