In an important breakthrough in the country's stalled peace process, President Frederik W. de Klerk agreed Friday to free 150 political prisoners, including those convicted of murdering whites, clearing the way for a summit today with Nelson Mandela.
The agreement, reached after 18 secret top-level meetings between the government and Mandela's African National Congress, removed a key obstacle to the resumption of constitutional talks, which the ANC suspended in June after the killing of more than 40 blacks at Boipatong township.
For the first time in weeks, conciliatory words were being exchanged between the ANC and the government.
De Klerk, addressing delegates to a provincial convention of his ruling National Party, asked whites to view the prisoner release as a compromise necessary to get the country back on the road to negotiations, saying: "I hope the country will understand . . . that the ground must be leveled and the sting of conflict removed. It is time that the slate is wiped clean. We must close the book on the past, not selectively but fully. We must remove retribution from our political vocabulary."
Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary general, said the agreement was "a significant breakthrough" that ended a two-year argument between the government and the ANC over political prisoners.
The government compromise met ANC preconditions for a De Klerk-Mandela summit. De Klerk had invited the ANC president to meet him to discuss ways of ending political violence, which has claimed nearly 8,000 lives during De Klerk's three years in office.
The ANC had refused to attend the meeting until De Klerk took concrete steps to meet 14 demands that the organization made when it pulled out of talks in June. The government had moved part way toward meeting those demands by launching independent judicial investigations into incidents of violence and agreeing that U.N. monitors can be stationed inside the country.
But before it would agree to a De Klerk-Mandela summit, the ANC sought specific movement on three demands: freeing political prisoners, banning dangerous weapons and fencing off single men's hostels said to be staging areas for violent attacks. Details of the agreements reached Friday will not be announced until today, but they were understood to include government shifts on all three matters.
De Klerk released thousands of political prisoners a year ago, including some ANC guerrillas who had planted bombs that killed black civilians. But until now, the government has refused to release guerrillas responsible for white civilian deaths. And the ANC counts at least 500 political operatives still behind bars.
Among those the government has promised to release in coming days are Robert McBride, Mthetheleli Mncube and Mzondeleli Nondula.
McBride, who is mixed-race Colored, planted a bomb in Magoo's Bar in Durban in 1986, killing three white civilians. Mncube and Nondula received multiple death sentences for planting land mines in the northern and eastern Transvaal that killed six members of two white families. Mncube also killed two white policemen during an escape.
All three men were on Death Row when the ANC was legalized in 1990. De Klerk commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment last year but had refused to release them. Government officials said they would be released on parole Monday.
"The De Klerk government was finally persuaded to accept that there are still hundreds of South Africans behind bars because they had taken up the struggle against apartheid," Ramaphosa said.
The issue of political prisoners has been among the most contentious matters dividing the government and the ANC. Many rank-and-file ANC supporters have seen the government's unwillingness to release former ANC guerrillas as evidence that De Klerk was not negotiating with the organization in good faith.
Under the agreement reached Friday, the government will release 150 political prisoners in the next few days. A list of others who qualify for release will be drawn up by the government and the ANC, and all political prisoners will be free by Nov. 15.
The ANC said it had discussed the release only of anti-apartheid prisoners. But government sources indicated the release orders also may include right-wing whites convicted in random murders of blacks. Among those is Barend Strydom, a right-wing white who was convicted of opening fire in downtown Pretoria in 1988, killing seven black passersby.
"I hope that when this (prisoner release) is done, it will be understood as a deed of reconciliation in order to unlock the future," said De Klerk.
He has been under pressure from within his government, and from right-wing organizations, to keep ANC guerrillas in jail. Until Friday, the government had insisted that the release of political prisoners be linked to a general amnesty for state officials implicated--but never charged or tried--in the murder of anti-apartheid activists.
The ANC strongly opposed that quid pro quo , arguing that a general amnesty for government officials, without knowing what offenses they may have committed, was not a fair trade-off for releasing ANC activists who had been tried, convicted and jailed.
The government apparently has dropped its demand for an immediate general amnesty, although ANC officials say privately that they have agreed to such an amnesty once a multiracial interim government is in place in the country.