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Sunday, February 11, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Pressures That Forced Mandela's Release

Los Angeles Times

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The government's decision to release Nelson Mandela was triggered by years of mounting worldwide pressure for apartheid reform and, more than anything else, a growing realization among South Africa's 5 million whites that their privileged life under a minority government is doomed.

``The Afrikaners have come to confront reality and realize they can no longer go on in the old way,'' said Patrick Lekota, a former political prisoner and leader of the United Democratic Front anti-apartheid coalition.

``They now know that if they are going to guarantee a future for their people, they will have to enter into some sort of compromise with the (black) majority.''

Mandela's freedom, demanded for years by black leaders from both ends of the political spectrum, represents the last major stumbling block to opening talks with the Mandela's African National Congress, the primary guerrilla group fighting Pretoria, and the rest of the black majority.

``Quite clearly, the government began to realize it was losing more than it was gaining by keeping Mandela,'' said Robert Shrire, a professor of political science at the University of Cape Town.

Given the time pressure on him, Shrire said, President Frederik W. de Klerk knew that any further delay would have begun to hurt him politically.

Since his election in September, de Klerk, 53, has moved swiftly to remove the conditions laid down by anti-apartheid groups as hurdles to negotiations. Part of the reason for that sense of urgency is de Klerk's five-year term of office, during which he will need to begin negotiations for a new constitution in order to stave off threats from his right-wing white opponents in parliament.

``Everything is predicated on making the maximum use of these years,'' Shrire said yesterday. ``This is very much a transitional period. Sanctions are not going to disappear. And de Klerk realized that the time had come to play the Mandela card.''

The release is part of a step-by-step process to demythologize Mandela that was initiated by de Klerk's predecessor, Pieter W. Botha, and kicked into high gear by the current leader.

To a large extent, the mythology surrounding Mandela was of the government's own making. And the government sought to remove the glow from the prisoner, first by moving Mandela from a prison cell to a home on the grounds of Victor Verster prison farm in Paarl, about 40 miles northeast of Cape Town, and then allowing him virtually unlimited visitors. In recent months, government officials also met regularly with Mandela and often publicly discussed the prisoner's obvious stature and peaceful solutions to South Africa's troubles.

``We were educated for years that Mandela was the devil himself, and the government needed to show its constituents that there had been a change of heart,'' said Willem de Klerk, a liberal communications professor and the president's older brother. ``It was a question of face-saving.''

The government was also watching another clock: Mandela's age. If Mandela died in prison, the government worried that the volatile townships, where hundreds of thousands of blacks live in poverty, would erupt.

Mandela also exerted his own pressure, often leading political analysts to say he was holding the government hostage. He repeatedly told his government visitors that the only way to escape international pressure was to negotiate with the ANC. And government officials were surprised to find Mandela so approachable.

At the same time, a change in thinking was occurring among South Africa's white voters, who returned the National Party to power in September by one of its narrowest margins in history. They had begun to feel the pinch of increasing sanctions against the country, especially those imposed by the United States, and in the past two years hundreds of white professors and businessmen made the trek to the exile headquarters of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia, to meet the ANC and talk about the future.

International ostracism of South Africa increased sharply beginning in 1984, when bloody riots broke out in black townships. The resulting economic sanctions have been the most devastating, especially for middle-class white South Africans. But a range of sports and cultural boycotts have also had an important psychological effect.

``Whites here consider themselves part of the world's middle-class, and they don't want to be cut off from that lifestyle,'' said Eric Louw, director of contemporary cultural studies at the University of Natal in Durban. ``With sanctions, even the little guy who's not involved in politics has felt the bite. Money is tight. Jobs are tight. The level of affluence has plummeted.

``The government is fully aware that it has to change,'' he added. ``It can't afford to fight the war any more.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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