Nelson R. Mandela and four anti-apartheid leaders dined on steak, fries and politics in his prison house one evening early this month, then repaired to the lounge and switched on the government's nightly news.
When the newscaster announced the decision to free several of Mandela's closest colleagues from prison, a look of satisfaction crossed the face of the 71-year-old leader, according to those present.
"Mr. Mandela," the newscaster added, "was fully apprised of the decision."
"I'm looking forward to the best sleep of my life," Mandela told his dinner guests.
That extraordinary dinner party in Mandela's house on the grounds of a prison farm near Cape Town, and Mandela's clearly crucial role in pressing the government to free his associates after a quarter century in jail, illustrate the considerable power and influence that the aging leader of the outlawed African National Congress is wielding today from prison.
Mandela, who has not been seen or heard publicly for 27 years, is not running the anti-apartheid struggle from inside prison, nor has he entered negotiations with the government. But to a remarkable extent, he has been able to maintain a dialogue with the government and apply pressure on it to release political prisoners and accept the ANC as a force it cannot ignore in South Africa's future.
Mandela has gained a larger-than-life status while in prison, and millions of blacks, most born after he went on trial for treason and sabotage in 1963, consider him their true leader. Upon meeting him for the first time, visitors are often struck by his booming voice and regal bearing.
"When you are in the room with him, you sense you are with a person of unique greatness," said Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. "He has a magnetic presence."
The government moved Mandela last year to a three-bedroom house, ordinarily reserved for prison officials, on prison grounds in lush wine country. He cannot place or receive phone calls, but his jailers have allowed him increasing numbers of visitors, frequently over lunch or dinner, and placed no time restrictions on those visits.
At Mandela's request, four leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement, a newly formed coalition of the country's leading anti-apartheid groups, came for dinner Oct. 10, the night the government announced that it would release Mandela's closest confidant, Walter Sisulu, and seven others.
The delegation, including Ramaphosa, Sisulu's wife, Albertina, Murphy Morobe and Cassim Saloojee, arrived about 6 p.m., minutes after Sisulu and several other inmates had ended a five-hour visit.
Saloojee said he found it "grandly exciting" but also "a weird experience" to be sitting in a comfortable home behind prison fences and being served dinner by a white guard who called Mandela "sir."
Mandela, dressed in a suit and tie and looking fit, cautioned them that their conversations might be overheard.
"You must assume we are not alone," he said.
Nevertheless, the guests recalled later, everyone spoke fairly freely, discussing the seriousness of the government's pledge to negotiate with black leaders and the successful defiance campaign launched in August by the Mass Democratic Movement. Mandela praised the MDM campaign and disclosed that the government intended to free the senior ANC leaders.
"He had told us about the releases, but when we heard it on television it made the whole thing so real," said Saloojee, president of the Transvaal Indian Congress. "We could feel he was deeply moved. He hugged Ma Sisulu. It was a great moment for him because he knew he had played a role."
Earlier in the evening, Mandela had read to them from his own handwritten document, outlining his thoughts on the current challenges facing the black liberation struggle. None of the visitors would reveal the contents of that document, but Saloojee said it showed Mandela to be "remarkably well-informed. His knowledge of what is happening in the country was such that you would not believe he had been cut off for all these years."
Senior government officials have been paying Mandela private visits since before 1982, when he was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison. In recent months, he has met many times with Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee and Constitutional Development Minister Gerrit Viljoen, whom President Frederik W. de Klerk has appointed to get negotiations going with the black majority.
Being in jail has put Mandela in a unique position to talk with the government, which refuses to meet publicly with leaders of the ANC in exile until the guerrilla group renounces violence or at least expresses a commitment to a peaceful solution in South Africa.
Mandela told his visitors that the meetings were an attempt to persuade the government to release its political prisoners and negotiate with the ANC leaders in exile. Anti-apartheid sources say he entered into no agreements with the government about his colleagues' release and made no promises about how they might behave once they were free.
The government's decision to release Sisulu and the others was welcomed in world capitals and was widely seen as an effort to buy time for De Klerk's reform program and test the waters for Mandela's own release.
Mandela said he made no promises about how his fellow ANC leaders would behave once they were free, but he had told government officials that the released men would need to meet current leaders of the ANC in exile, as well as internal leaders, to seek their orders.
So far, the freed prisoners have stressed the need for "order and discipline" in the anti-apartheid movement and sought to defuse potential clashes with the authorities. The police, meanwhile, have allowed the ANC leaders considerable latitude, effectively lifting the 29-year ban on the organization.
Mandela said his own release is not an issue under consideration now, while 400 people remain jailed for political crimes, 15 of them like himself serving life sentences. Government officials have said Mandela may be released sometime next year.
"The release of his colleagues has always been paramount in his mind," said Morobe, acting publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front. "He sees himself as having an obligation to them."
When Mandela is released, anti-apartheid leaders say, he will not fade into the background as an aging elder statesman.
"From the way he thinks and discusses things, I believe he has an enormous role to play in shaping the future," Saloojee said. "He's going to make quite an impact as the leader of the ANC."