Three runaway detainees holed up in the U.S. Consulate here for 37 days walked free Wednesday with fists raised in a salute of anti-apartheid solidarity, testing the government’s promise that it would not detain them again or restrict them.
“We felt we had made our point and no further purpose would be served by us remaining in the consulate,” said Mohammed Valli Moosa, one of the three who escaped from police guards at a hospital Sept. 13 and found refuge in the 11th-floor board room of the consulate.
“We entered the consulate not simply to secure our own freedom but to stir the conscience of South Africa and the world about the plight of our fellow detainees--people whose only crime is that they dared to resist the unjust policy of apartheid,” said Valli Moosa, general secretary of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of South African anti-apartheid groups.
The three told a news conference that their decision to leave the consulate was influenced by Nelson R. Mandela, the 70-year-old black nationalist leader serving a life sentence in a Cape Town prison.
They said that Mandela, in a message relayed a few days ago by his wife, Winnie, had suggested that they leave the consulate “as soon as possible” and that neither a lengthy stay nor exile would serve the anti-apartheid cause.
Earlier, they had vowed to stay at the consulate until Pretoria freed more than 1,000 South African political activists detained without charge under a state of emergency.
Their departure from the consulate ended a standoff that had dragged the U.S. government directly into the conflict between the white minority-led government and its mostly black anti-apartheid opponents.
The U.S. government had granted the men refuge despite its policy of not allowing diplomatic offices to be used by people seeking asylum.
Valli Moosa said the consulate staff was “fairly courteous” and never pressured the men to leave.
But the men said they were angered by the Americans’ refusal to grant them permission to talk with reporters and issue public statements. That effectively blunted the activists’ attempt to focus international attention on emergency detention, under which some 30,000 people have been held for varying periods since June, 1986.
“It was quite obvious that the Americans, for their own reasons, were interested in downplaying” the presence of three former detainees at the consulate, Valli Moosa said.
In a brief statement Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria said the State Department had played no part in the men’s departure.
“They arrived at their decision independently,” said Barry Walkley, an embassy spokesman. “Having provided them with refuge, we will of course remain interested in any developments.”
Shortly after the men escaped, South Africa’s minister of law and order announced that the three would not be detained or restricted if they left the consulate. The government said it had planned to release them anyway.
Vusi Khanyile, 37, chairman of the National Education Crisis Committee, had been in detention for 21 months before his escape. Both Valli Moosa, 34, and Murphy Morobe, 32, publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front, had been in detention for 13 months. Khanyile and Morobe are black; Valli Moosa is Indian.
Cheers of Supporters
More than 100 journalists, anti-apartheid activists and family members awaited the men when they emerged from the high-rise building where the U.S. Consulate is situated. Traffic on the street outside was stopped by about 100 black supporters cheering and yelling “ Amandla !,” the Zulu word for “power.”
“It’s great, it’s great to be out,” Morobe shouted. “We’re going home.”
Several dozen South African police officers were on hand to contain the crowd but took no other action as the smiling former detainees left in a waiting car.
Later, at the news conference, supporters of the three men objected to the presence of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp., and they applauded loudly when the SABC correspondent and cameraman were ordered to leave.
Morobe said the three had worried about trying to resume their political activities because both their organizations are among 19 effectively banned earlier this year by the government.
“We could have gone into exile,” Morobe said, “but we chose to come back because we have much work to do. There are still gaps (in the law) to enable us to pressure for peaceful solutions and change in this country.”
Their remarks were cautious, however, apparently aimed at avoiding an immediate confrontation with the government.
“It is not without apprehension that we have left the consulate,” Valli Moosa said. “Notwithstanding the government’s assurances, we realize that we could be re-detained or given harsh banning orders.”
Among those present at the news conference were Archie Gumede and Albertina Sisulu, co-presidents of the 2-million-member United Democratic Front. They are among more than 400 people the government has restricted from addressing groups or participating in political activities, among other things.