SUPPORTERS of the African National Congress took to the streets of Johannesburg Tuesday night at the invitation of ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who charged that the government had failed to meet an April 30 deadline for the release of prisoners and return of exiles. "We find this failure of the government totally unacceptable," Mr. Mandela told a supportive crowd of about 2,000 people in the Johannesburg City Hall.
He later invited the predominantly black audience to follow him to the ANC Youth League's offices - about two miles away - where he contacted government officials in a bid to secure the release of several hundred league members arrested during nationwide demonstrations Tuesday.
Police kept a low profile as the chanting and dancing protesters made their way through the city with the help of traffic police on motorcycles. There was no attempt to disrupt the spontaneous and technically illegal march.
While a resurgence of protest was evident, President Frederik de Klerk warned Tuesday that the country was slipping toward civil war and that the "violence psychosis" was threatening negotiations. He appealed to all leaders to join the government in trying to end the violence. "We are picking the bitter fruit of the past," he said. "What has happened, has happened. But what is happening now is a blemish on us, and we can do something about it."
Mandela, speaking for the first time in the Johannesburg City Hall, said the ANC had noted how quickly the government had moved on the issue of political prisoners in the past few weeks. The ANC saw this as proof that Pretoria had been using the issue as a bargaining chip to force further ANC concessions.
"The delay in releasing these people was a way of holding them hostage," Mandela charged. He did not indicate what action the ANC would take, but suggested that a decision would be delayed until the May 9 deadline had passed for the government to take decisive action to halt political violence, which has claimed more than 60 lives in the past five days.
Leaders of the anti-apartheid Congress of South African Trade Unions warned Wednesday that the federation would call a general strike if the government didn't meet the May 9 deadline.
Mandela drew the loudest applause of the evening when he ruled out his being drawn into a "troika" with Mr. De Klerk and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Inkatha Freedom Party leader. "It is merely a smokescreen," he said. "I will not be part of that troika."
As Mandela was speaking Tuesday night, ANC leaders and black trade unionists were preparing for 37 May Day rallies nationwide to protest the government's failure to free all prisoners and grant indemnity to all exiles wanting to return to South Africa.
The ANC has rejected initiatives by De Klerk to end the violence. ANC leaders say the organization will not take part in a proposed all-party conference on violence on May 24, and they have rejected a proposed standing commission to investigate violence. The ANC is demanding an independent judicial commission and an international judicial committee to monitor the violence.
In Parliament Wednesday, De Klerk said the release of political prisoners was "on track." He said the government had authorized the release of 933 prisoners. The ANC claims there are 1,292 political prisoners, according to a list compiled by the ANC-leaning Human Rights Commission. But officials say 770 of those listed are not on government records.
De Klerk said the government had turned down the release of 364 prisoners because of the seriousness of their crimes, which included murder. He said many cases had been referred to a recently established advisory body, which includes ANC members, to determine whether they were bona fide political cases.
Referring to the ANC's 5,872 applications for indemnity for exiles, De Klerk said the government had approved 4,530 for lesser infractions and 55 on an individual basis; 90 were refused. He accused the ANC of "dragging its feet" on the issue and said 526 more cases could have been dealt with if the ANC had kept an appointment with Justice Ministry officials last Friday.
Despite the confrontation over prisoners and exiles, Pretoria officials did not seem unduly concerned about the ANC's tough stance. "We believe that Mandela and the ANC remain committed to peaceful negotiations," said one official. "We expect things will begin to look better after the ANC's national conference in July."
Political scientists say any ANC action between now and its July conference should be seen in the light of efforts by the leadership to win reelection despite an increasingly militant rank and file.
"Everything the ANC does now should be seen as building up steam for its July conference," said Natal University political scientist Mervyn Frost.