Four political detainees who escaped from a hospital and holed up for two days in the West German Embassy walked free Wednesday after the government promised not to re-detain them or restrict their activities.
“We leave the embassy today feeling we have won a great victory,” Ephraim Nkoe, 28, said as he emerged from the embassy compound in Pretoria.
Nkoe, education officer for the banned South African Youth Congress, said he and the three other black activists, in detention for periods ranging from eight to 23 months, are still pressing their demand that the government release the estimated 400 activists still held without trial.
The men’s walk to freedom came amid increasing pressure on the white minority-led government to halt political detentions, which are legal and not subject to appeal under the 33-month-old state of emergency.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok has released 580 activists, more than half of those in custody, since Jan. 23, when hundreds of detainees staged a hunger strike. Although the government still maintains that police detentions are necessary to maintain the country’s security, Vlok’s actions in recent weeks seem to signal a willingness to relax its grip.
The Citizen, a pro-government newspaper, made its first call for detainees’ freedom Wednesday, declaring in an editorial that “in the final analysis, all detainees should be freed . . . or tried.”
The four activists who sought refuge at the German Embassy had been hospitalized during the hunger strike. Like most detainees in the country, they had suspended their fast last month when Vlok promised to review each detainee’s case and release a “substantial number.”
Nkoe said the men “were becoming skeptical” about their eventual freedom and decided to escape from the hospital, where guards had become increasingly lax.
On Monday morning, he said, the guards were not at their posts and the four men, still wearing their pajamas, “just marched out.” They walked to a nearby commuter train terminal, climbed into a Pretoria-bound taxi full of passengers and, less than an hour later, arrived at the German Embassy in Pretoria, 40 miles north of Johannesburg.
On Tuesday, Vlok announced that he had signed release orders for three of the activists before their escape and that he had just approved the release of the fourth. Vlok said they were free to leave the embassy, without the restrictions on political activity that have accompanied most newly released detainees.
But Nkoe said the men “find it difficult to believe” that Vlok had signed release orders before their escape. Six months ago, when three detainees escaped a hospital and found refuge at the U.S. Consulate, the government also said it had intended to free them all along.
The liberal daily newspaper, Business Day, on Wednesday mocked what it called the government’s “highly sophisticated new system” for releasing detainees. “A detainee need only arrange to be transferred to hospital and escape to a foreign embassy to discover that he was actually released a week before his escape,” the paper said in an editorial.
Human rights activists estimate that more than 400 political activists remain in detention.
More than 600 detainees have participated in the hunger strike, detainee support groups say, and about 80 are still refusing food.
Besides Nkoe, the other men who left the German Embassy on Wednesday were: Mpho Lekgoro, 24, of the Saulsville-Atteridgeville Youth Congress, who had been in detention for a year; Clive Radebe, 28, of the Soweto Youth Congress, held 16 months, and Job Sithole, 21, of the Alexandra Youth Congress, held 23 months.
Johannesburg bureau assistant Michael Cadman contributed to this report.