Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, on Sunday firmly rejected the South African government’s offer of conditional freedom and instead set forth his own terms for negotiations between his outlawed organization and the nation’s white regime.
“I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free,” Mandela, 66, declared in a message from his prison cell in Cape Town, where he is serving a life sentence imposed in 1964 after his conviction on charges of sabotage and plotting revolution.
“I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free,” he said. “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
South African President Pieter W. Botha, in a gesture meant to demonstrate his government’s commitment to reform, had offered to free Mandela and other black nationalist leaders if they renounced violence as a means of fighting apartheid (institutionalized separation of the races) and agreed to obey the country’s strict internal security laws.
“I’m surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me,” Mandela said in a statement read by his daughter Zinzi at a rally here. “I am not a violent man. . . . It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle.”
If Botha truly wants a political solution to South Africa’s continued turmoil, Mandela said, the government should legalize the African National Congress, release political prisoners, allow exiles to return, permit free political activity and commit itself to end apartheid.
“Let Botha show that he is different,” Mandela said, recalling past white leaders who refused to negotiate with the African National Congress and instead strengthened the apartheid system.
Mandela’s rejection of the government’s offer had been expected.
“I cherish my own freedom dearly,” said Mandela, who has been in jail since 1962. “But I care even more for your freedom.”
What is the point of accepting the government offer, he said, when apartheid still effectively reduces freedom to almost nothing.
Mandela’s message greatly moved the predominantly black crowd of 8,000 here, for whom Mandela is the pre-eminent symbol of resistance to apartheid.
The black nationalist leader framed the message during discussions with other political prisoners in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison, where he is being held, and on Friday, a week after Botha’s offer was made, gave it to his wife, Winnie Mandela, and his lawyer, Ismail Ayob.
Prison officials tried to stop him from making the statement, his daughter Zinzi said. She was reading it, she explained, because her mother is still banned from all political activity and public gatherings by government order. The statement itself is probably illegal under South Africa’s security laws.
One black political prisoner, serving a life sentence, did accept the government’s offer of release, the South African Prisons Service announced over the weekend. It declined to identify him.
Mandela made a point in his statement of stressing his solidarity with the African National Congress and its exiled leadership under Oliver Tambo, his former law partner. He rejected recent reports of differences between the organization’s South Africa underground wing and its exiles based in neighboring, black-ruled countries.
The rally in Johannesburg’s black suburb of Soweto was originally organized by the United Democratic Front, a broad, multiracial alliance of anti-apartheid organizations, to celebrate the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Bishop Desmond Tutu and his election as the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg.