S. Africa's Strikers Find Unlikely Aid From ANC

Mandela's visit to hunger strikers is a hopeful sign that the hostility between the left and right may be transformed

THE plight of three right-wing hunger strikers has resulted in the first public contact between white extremists and the African National Congress and raised hopes that the right wing may argue its case at the negotiating table.ANC President Nelson Mandela's visit to the three men's Pretoria hospital beds on Sept. 2 has had a major impact on the right wing and may help transform the hostility between the opposite poles of South African politics. Briton Henry Martin entered the 61st day of his fast today, Afrikaner Adrian Maritz entered the 54th day, and Lood van Schalkwyk the 46th day. The three men - members of an extremist right-wing group Orde Boerevolk (Order of the Boer Nation or OB) - have vowed to starve themselves to death unless the government grants them immunity and frees them. Wim Cornelius, the hunger strikers' legal representative, was to meet his clients Thursday to discuss the future of their hunger strike. There has been speculation in recent days that they might call off their fast. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said on Sept. 3 the government would not bow to blackmail, maintaining Pretoria's hard-line stance. "We dare not weaken justice with misplaced humanitarian feelings," he said. "The principle here is far more important than the individual." After the health of several ANC hunger strikers began to fail in May, the government freed five of them to defuse the situation. But Pretoria is resisting mounting pressure from across the political spectrum to free the men on humanitarian grounds. The government has granted indemnity to 26 right-wingers and more than 1,000 ANC-aligned prisoners in the past year, but has taken a tough line with those who have committed serious crimes such as murdering civilians. The three have been charged with murder for sending a mail bomb which killed a computer operator in August last year. They have also been charged with 11 counts of attempted murder for bombing a black taxi rank in Pretoria which injured 11 blacks last October. They have defended their actions on political grounds. Human rights lawyers say the government's tough stance appears to be motivated by its reluctance to set a precedent for indemnifying prisoners who have killed civilians. "If the government released these people it would be a very dangerous precedent," says Brian Currin, director of Lawyers for Human Rights. "It would indicate a drift to a hostage-style of politics in which the government would risk losing control of law and order." He says that the government should state clearly its willingness to negotiate all constitutional options and demand that the right-wingers call off the hunger strike, renounce violence, and enter negotiations. All three men are very weak. Opposition and civil rights groups fear that the three could become potent symbols of martyrdom if they die. Mr. Mandela said it was important to speak to the men because they had been agents of Military Intelligence and the National Intelligence Service and had important incriminating evidence about state involvement in violence which should be exposed. But he stressed the humanitarian aspects of his visit after meeting with them. Relatives said their morale picked up sharply after the Mandela visit. A lawyer who attended the meeting said Mr. Martin had held Mandela's hand and had told him he was a "gentleman." Mr. Cornelius said it was the first time the interests of the left and the right had converged. "It is a hopeful sign for negotiations," he said. OB leader, Nic Strydom, said his group had renounced violence and had restructured itself with "an eye to negotiations." He said his group was prepared to negotiate even if the right-wing political parties were not. His comments created a furor among right-wingers and were openly repudiated by some groups who also rejected Mandela's mediation. On state-run television Tuesday night Mandela said the reactionary policies of the right-wing should not be allowed to obstruct the search for reconciliation between all South Africans. He invited right-wing parties to put their proposals for a separate white state on the negotiating table and vowed the ANC would debate any proposals made. Asked whether the ANC had found common cause with the right-wing he said: "The common cause is the search for peace." When Mandela and President Frederick de Klerk met in Pretoria on Sept. 3, Mr. De Klerk rejected Mandela's plea to indemnify the men and repeated an offer of bail which they had already rejected. "There is no doubt their action has succeeded in focusing attention on the right-wing demand for a separate white state," Mr. Currin says. "In that sense, the protest has served a positive function. Unless a new constitution in South Africa works for everyone it will not ensure peace." The protest has provided a focus for mounting right-wing anger at De Klerk's reforms and his intention to negotiate a nonracial constitution without holding another whites-only election. The right-wing Conservative Party has defended the violent actions of some extreme right-wing groups claiming that they have been "driven into a corner" by the government's actions. The Conservatives have refused to take part in negotiations about the country's future until De Klerk acknowledges the "Afrikaner right to self-determination." This is a euphemism for a separate white state, with the boundaries to be determined at the negotiating table, right-wingers say. "If Mandela and De Klerk would guarantee the self-determination of whites, the Conservative Party would enter talks on how to give substance to an Afrikaner state," says Conservative legislator Koos van der Merwe.

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