President Pieter W. Botha’s surprise “courtesy visit” with jailed nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela drew widely divergent reaction Sunday, with anti-apartheid leaders calling it a “cheap government scheme” to raise false hopes for Mandela’s release and others applauding it as a first step toward a peaceful settlement of South Africa’s problems.
“The supposed meeting does not constitute any dramatic event in the history of this country, as the South African government would like the world to believe,” said the Rev. Frank Chikane, secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, reading a statement from Mandela’s family and other black leaders.
To suggest otherwise, when Mandela is unable to freely consult with his people, “is nothing short of political mischief . . . designed to sow confusion in the minds of our people and of the outside world,” said Chikane, flanked by Mandela’s wife, Winnie, at a news conference in Soweto.
“As Mandela himself has said, ‘Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate,’ ” Chikane added.
The 45-minute meeting Wednesday between Botha and Mandela at the presidential mansion in Cape Town, disclosed by the government Saturday, was an informal chat over tea, and Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said that possible negotiations and policy matters were not discussed. Botha’s white minority-led government has over the years repeatedly refused to negotiate with Mandela’s banned guerrilla group, the African National Congress, saying that it does not “negotiate with terrorists.”
Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said he was encouraged that Botha “has, at long last, heeded the calls of those who are interested in negotiations.” But he said he was puzzled by the timing of the meeting, coming amid the ruling National Party’s campaign for the Sept. 6 general elections.
Winnie Mandela said Sunday that she intends to visit her husband this week to find out why he had agreed to meet Botha.
Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the moderate leader of the 2-million-member Zulu nation, said the meeting meant that the 70-year-old Mandela’s release from prison, where he has been held for 26 years of a life sentence for sabotage and attempting to overthrow the state, “is now only a question of time.”
‘One of Last Great Gestures’
The meeting, the first publicly known face-to-face encounter between the two men, “is certainly one of the last great gestures for which Mr. Botha will always be remembered by black South Africa,” Buthelezi said.
Although government officials described the meeting as important, and likely to improve South Africa’s image overseas, many political analysts here said they considered the unusual get-together little more than the rogue act of an outgoing president with no authority to negotiate the country’s future.
Botha, 73, will step down after the parliamentary elections, after losing a bitter power struggle within his own National Party. He resigned in February as party leader and recently refused to attend the party convention or a farewell dinner that the party had planned for him.
Some analysts think Botha arranged the meeting with Mandela either to confound his party, to take credit for beginning the process toward peace or simply to meet the man whose incarceration has caused the government so many headaches. The two men did not discuss or plan further meetings, the government said.
If the National Party wins the parliamentary elections as is widely expected, the new party leader, Frederik W. de Klerk, will become president, and government sources have suggested that a wide array of reform measures, including Mandela’s release, would then be possible. De Klerk has declined to comment, except to say “it is the president’s prerogative” to meet whom he wishes.
The right-wing Conservative Party, the National Party’s chief opponent in the elections, said it was “astounded by the fact that our head of state cordially entertains a convicted criminal in the presidency.” Conservative Party information officer Koos van der Merwe said he was demanding “some straight answers from the government.”
Mandela’s African National Congress and leaders of other anti-apartheid groups have said that meaningful negotiations about the nation’s future cannot begin until Mandela and all political prisoners are released, the three-year-old state of emergency is lifted, the bans on the ANC and other groups are lifted and exiles are allowed to return home. Hundreds of white South Africans have made pilgrimages to ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, in recent months, however, to talk with the outlawed group and, in almost every case, have urged the government to do the same.
Mandela, considered by millions of South Africa’s voteless blacks as their true leader, is being held on a prison farm about 60 miles from Cape Town. He has, over the years, refused many conditional offers of release, declining, for example, to accept exile or to renounce violence in exchange for his freedom.