JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The chief lieutenant to imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela was released today after 23 years in prison, leading to speculation the government action could be a prelude to Mandela's freedom.
Govan Mbeki, 77, was flown by the government from Cape Town to the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth, where he plans to live.
He told a news conference that he had been released without conditions and that he was still a member of the ANC and the South African Communist Party.
"The ideas for which I went to jail and for which the ANC stands, I still embrace," he said.
Spoke With Mandela
Mbeki said he had spoken with Mandela this morning. He said Mandela supported his release, but he declined to give details of their conversation.
Casper Venter, an official of the government's Bureau for Information, said Mbeki "will be free to do whatever he wants," but because he is a Communist he cannot be quoted legally in South Africa after today's government-authorized news conference.
Mbeki, former national chairman of the outlawed black nationalist movement, was jailed for life with Mandela and six others in 1964 for sabotage.
Mbeki had been held in the Robben Island political prison, about eight miles offshore from Cape Town, throughout his imprisonment. Mandela was imprisoned on the island until his transfer in 1982 to the modern, top-security Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland.
Mbeki and Mandela were among senior ANC leaders who organized the movement's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and launched a sabotage campaign at power poles and other unmanned facilities.
Denis Goldberg, 57, the only white man jailed with Mandela, was released in February, 1985, after pledging to forgo political violence against the white minority government in Pretoria.
He left the country for Israel and later moved to London, where he remains in contact with the ANC.
Mandela, Mbeki and other ANC leaders in prison rejected President Pieter W. Botha's offer of freedom in return for a public repudiation of violence.