Miscellaneous Items

from 1990

Mandela, 'Faceless Man With a Fax,' Negotiates His and His Nation's Future

– John F. Burns, Special to The New York Times, 30 January 1990

JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 29 — For the last week, audiences packing a popular dinner theater in a grimy industrial quarter of Johannesburg have reserved one of their biggest laughs for a line offered by the country's best-known political satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys. ''Who would have thought,'' Mr. Uys has said each night, strictly deadpan, ''that a faceless man with a fax machine could run the country from a prison?''The predominantly white audiences have needed no help identifying the reference to Nelson Mandela, who is the country's and perhaps the world's most famous political prisoner.

Lately, Mr. Mandela has added to his renown as the symbolic leader of millions of blacks a curiosity value of a highly unusual kind, since he has been negotiating, with the aid of a fax machine and a group of white prison officers who appear to act as much as assistants as captors, not only the terms of his own release but the outlines of what could be the future of South Africa.

With quickening intensity, South Africans everywhere from the plush northern suburbs of Johannesburg to the dusty back alleys of Soweto have been snapping up the final editions of newspapers at street-corner stands, silencing gatherings to listen to the television news, and collectively sitting on the edge of their seats for news of what everybody seems to regard as one of the most momentous events in South African history: the release of Mr. Mandela, who has been continuously in South African jails since Aug. 5, 1962.

Midnight Vigil

On Saturday night, editors of the country's biggest newspaper, The Sunday Times, sat edgily in their offices until after midnight. They were waiting for a call from reporters with mobile telephones stationed outside Victor Verster Prison 40 miles northeast of Cape Town, and at other spots along the route that Mr. Mandela is expected to take back to his home in Soweto, the black satellite city outside Johannesburg, when the country's white rulers finally decide to let him go.

When the editors finally let the reporters go home, it was because of a further twist in what had already become an enticingly improbable saga.

According to officials close to President F. W. de Klerk, a move to release Mr. Mandela immediately, two weeks before the most widely predicted date in mid-February, was halted when Mr. de Klerk and other top officials decided that conditions they had set for the release of the 71-year-old black leader had not been met.

Primarily, these involve a ''commitment to peace'' from Mr. Mandela's exiled associates in the African National Congress, a pledge that they will halt, or at least suspend, the sporadic guerrilla attacks against Government and other targets that they have conducted since Mr. Mandela went underground to lead an armed struggle against domination by the country's white minority in 1961.

But Winnie Mandela, the black leader's wife, implied after visiting Mr. Mandela on Saturday that the delay came at her husband's behest, after the Government failed to meet his terms.

These include the ending of the ban on the African National Congress and dozens of other proscribed black groups, the lifting of a state of emergency declared by the Government during anti-Government turmoil in 1986, the release of about 300 political detainees and an end to all ''political'' executions, by which Mr. Mandela means the hanging of blacks found guilty of murder and other capital crimes while engaged in anti-apartheid protests.

Whether Mr. de Klerk is ready to meet some or all of Mr. Mandela's terms, and to announce a firm date for the black leader's freedom, is expected to be known on Friday, when the President addresses the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town.

In the meantime, the suggestion advanced by Mrs. Mandela - that her husband might yet refuse to take his freedom, after more than a quarter century in jail that included years spent working in a lime quarry, picking seaweed and building roads - has added intrigue to a situation that has no obvious parallel in the annals of political detention. A Shadow Government? As Mr. Uys's remark at the Market Theater in Johannesburg suggested, many South Africans are bemused by the idea that a man long presented to them as a Communist and a terrorist has emerged, while still in prison, as a sort of one-man shadow government.

But perhaps the most striking thing of all is that many whites appear as excited by the situation as blacks, and that the feeling is detectable in some improbable places.

A visitor who met last week with a high-ranking officer who was previously head of the widely feared Security Police reported that the officer, until recently charged with hunting down and prosecuting members of the African National Congress, compared the situation with the Boer War, the most traumatic event in the history of South Africa's ruling ethnic group, the Afrikaners. ''He seemed absolutely fascinated,'' the visitor said.

For the moment, many whites and blacks have their attention fixed on the unusual details of Mr. Mandela's continuing incarceration.

For more than a year, he has been living in a spacious bungalow home about four miles from the main prison building outside Paarl, in the mountainous wine country behind Cape Town. The bungalow was previously the home of the white man who was the prison's deputy governor, and Mr. Mandela has the use of a swimming pool on the bungalow's grounds. He is also helped in his communications with his associates outside the prison, and in greeting a stream of visitors, including high-ranking Government ministers, by three white prison officers. Newspapers have noted that the officers are confined to using the servant's quarters at the home, cramped outbuildings that have been converted to offices and temporary sleeping quarters.

As described by The Sunday Times, Mr. Mandela has developed relationships with his white captors that seem more like those of equals than of those between a prisoner and his guards. The paper said that visitors to the home have reported that the white guards refer to Mr. Mandela with respect, and call him by his first name, and that one of them, identified as Warrant Officer Greg Gregory, has developed a particularly close relationship with Mr. Mandela, having been transferred with the black leader through three prisons: the notorious Robben Island fortress off Cape Town, Pollsmoor jail outside the city, and finally to Victor Verster.

Still a Prisoner

But other aspects of Mr. Mandela's situation make it plain that that in many respects he is still treated as a prisoner. Visitors are searched, letters and other documents passing in and out of the bungalow are read by prison staff, although not censored, and Mr. Mandela has a radio and television set that can pull in South African broadcasts, but nothing from abroad.

This means that much of what he hears has passed through Government censors, since the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which dominates broadcasting, is under tight Government control. The black guards at the home are armed, and the facsimile machine is situated in the main prison, not in the bungalow.

Another paradox is that Mr. Mandela has become one of the most widely quoted political figures in the country, second only to Mr. de Klerk, although South Africa's Prisons Act makes it an offense to quote a prisoner or to give any details of his incarceration.

Another oddity, captured in Mr. Uys's remark about Mr. Mandela's being ''faceless,'' is that none of the photographers covering the story have yet been allowed to take a current photograph of the black leader. The editor of one major newspaper said that he had been told that major international photo agencies have offered sums of up to $300,000 for pictures of the black leader in prison.

For his part, Mr. Mandela, who is said to be fit, but white-haired and slimmer than he was when he was imprisoned for life, is said to have been amused, while taking a stroll on the prison grounds recently, to have gone unrecognized by photographers gathered outside the gate.

''He was enormously tickled,'' one of the black leader's lawyers said. ''There he is, the center of world attention, and these hawk-eyed newspapermen didn't even recognize him.''