JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President Frederik W. de Klerk, taking the first concrete steps toward his promise of bringing peace to this racially divided nation, announced Tuesday night that he will release unconditionally black nationalist leader Walter Sisulu and seven other aging political prisoners.
Sisulu, 76, the second most powerful anti-apartheid leader in the country behind Nelson R. Mandela, has been in prison for a quarter of a century. Mandela and Sisulu were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1964 for plotting sabotage against the government.
The United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions described De Klerk's announcement as a "massive victory" for the people.
In a joint statement, the two largest internal anti-apartheid groups said the prisoners are "tried and tested leaders of our people" who will now take their "rightful place" at the head of the liberation movement.
De Klerk's decision to release Sisulu and five other men convicted with him, along with two other political prisoners, is seen as a sweeping gesture designed to prove the newly elected president's sincerity about dismantling apartheid and eventually sharing power with the black majority.
It is widely viewed as a prelude to the eventual release of Mandela, the 71-year-old leader of the outlawed African National Congress.
"I hope the release of these prisoners will contribute to the spirit of reconciliation which is presently evident in our country," De Klerk said in a statement.
However, he said that Mandela had been "fully apprised of these proposed releases" and had "confirmed yet again that his release is not now on the agenda." Government sources say Mandela's freedom, which black leaders have made a prerequisite for negotiations with the government, is not likely before early next year.
De Klerk gave no timetable for the eight prisoners' release, saying only that they will be freed "as soon as the necessary formalities can be dealt with." He cautioned, though, that it could "take some time."
Political analysts and anti-apartheid activists say they think the government will likely release the lesser-known prisoners first before letting Sisulu go. Most guess that it will be several weeks before Sisulu leaves his cell at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
"I have mixed feelings," Sisulu's son, Zwelakhe, said Tuesday night in Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg. "Obviously, to have the old man back home is going to be good. But this type of promise is meaningless until it's delivered."
Zwelakhe Sisulu, 38, editor of the weekly New Nation, and his mother, Albertina, are leading figures in the movement against apartheid, South Africa's system of racial separation. Both are under severe government restrictions, including nighttime house arrest.
Activists say that Walter Sisulu, upon his release, will likely assume the top position in the anti-apartheid movement inside the country. Relatives say his health is good.
"For all practical purposes, Walter is the associate leader who will take the place of Nelson Mandela until he's released," the Rev. Beyers Naude, a leading anti-apartheid activist, said in an interview. "Once Walter is released, he will find himself in a position that he will simply have to undertake the responsibility" of leading the struggle.
Black leaders have been severely restricted by bans on anti-apartheid organizations and widespread detentions carried out under the three-year-old state of emergency. But De Klerk has eased the crackdown on peaceful protest in recent weeks, allowing dozens of protest marches across the country.
De Klerk's announcement will free nearly an entire generation of African National Congress leaders who, with Mandela, guided the group during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. The ANC, banned by the government in 1960, has its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, and is led by Oliver Tambo, Mandela's former law partner, who recently suffered a stroke.
In making his decision, De Klerk said, he took many factors into account, including the age of the prisoners and "the fact that most of these prisoners had already served many, many years of their sentences."
"It was decided that, taking good order into account, a favorable climate currently exists in which the release can take place," De Klerk added.
For years the government has refused to release its most celebrated political prisoners, demanding that they renounce violence as a condition of their release.
But in recent years, the government has released a few, including Govan Mbeki, another of Mandela's co-defendants. Mbeki was released two years ago unconditionally, but within days the government placed him under 12-hour house arrest and ordered him not to engage in political activity.
Tuesday's announcement was regarded as a gesture to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher before next week's meeting of the 48-nation Commonwealth. Thatcher stands virtually alone in the Commonwealth against tougher sanctions on the white minority-led government.
It also came on the eve of the highest-level talks between the government and black leaders in more than three years. De Klerk is to meet Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu and two other leading clerics in Pretoria today to discuss his pledge to undertake negotiations that will give the 26-million-member black majority its first voice in national affairs.
Among those to be released by De Klerk are the remaining defendants in Mandela's trial, all of whom have served 25 years of life sentences for their leadership roles in the ANC underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. They are Ahmed Kathrada, 60; Andrew Mlangeni, 63; Elias Motsoaledi, 65, and Raymond Mhlaba, 68.
Wilton Mkwayi, 65, who took command of Umkhonto we Sizwe for a brief period after the arrest of Mandela's co-defendants in July, 1963, is also to be freed from the life prison term he was given in 1964.
The announcement also named Oscar Mpetha, 80, an ailing ANC member who has spent most of his five-year sentence in the hospital. He was due for release next year. De Klerk also said he would release Jafta Masemula, a member of the outlawed Pan-Africanist Congress, who went to prison in the 1960s.
Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu was a founder in 1943 of the ANC Youth League, which forced the more conservative leaders of the ANC to move away from a program of petitioning the government to campaigns of civil disobedience. He was secretary general of the ANC from 1949 to 1954, when the government ordered him to stop working for the ANC.
He continued his ANC work in secret. In 1963, a year after the beginning of the Mandela-led campaign of armed resistance, Sisulu was convicted of furthering the aims of the ANC and placed under 24-hour house arrest while awaiting appeal.
He disappeared, however, rejoining the underground leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and was among those arrested in a police raid on the guerrillas' headquarters in Rivonia, a northern Johannesburg suburb. He served part of his sentence at Robben Island and was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland in 1982.
Largely self-educated, Sisulu worked as a laborer for a dairy, a factory hand and a "kitchen boy." In his early years, he was strongly committed to black nationalism but gradually became a supporter of the Freedom Charter, the ANC's blueprint for a society governed along non-racial lines.
Zwelakhe Sisulu, a former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, was released last year after two years in detention without trial. Albertina Sisulu, 71, a nurse, is co-president of the United Democratic Front, the anti-apartheid coalition.
Today, the South African government and black leaders will begin their highest-level talks in three years. President De Klerk will sit down with Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu and two other clerics. Next week, the 48-nation Commonwealth will hold a meeting. Expected on the agenda: debate over tougher sanctions against the white-led government.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times