JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The South African government Thursday freed Govan Mbeki, the 77-year-old chairman of the outlawed African National Congress, who had been imprisoned with other ANC leaders for nearly a quarter-century for attempting to overthrow minority white rule here.
Mbeki's release was widely seen as both a step toward freeing other political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the ANC president, and part of a major government initiative to develop a dialogue with the nation's black majority on a new political system for the country.
Urges Talks With ANC
Mbeki, sentenced to life in prison along with Mandela for a campaign of bomb attacks and sabotage that began the ANC's armed insurgency, immediately urged the government to pursue negotiations with the ANC and to legalize it.
"We all belong to South Africa, and South Africa belongs to all of us," he told a press conference in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, where he was released. "With this as a premise, it should not be difficult to find solutions. . . . I would expect that negotiations with the ANC are desirable, as no solution in this country can be arrived at by keeping it out."
But Mbeki said he will not participate in a new "national council" proposed by President Pieter W. Botha as a forum for such negotiations, and he dismissed other government reforms as failing to solve the country's prolonged crisis.
"I do not think that, along the lines that have been followed so far, a solution is within reach," Mbeki said.
The ANC is committed to ending the racial separation and minority rule of apartheid and establishing a new political system based on the principle of one person, one vote.
After it was outlawed in 1961, following almost 50 years of nonviolent protest, the African National Congress launched its armed insurgency under Mandela's leadership, saying that its goals appeared to be achievable only through the overthrow of the government. But in the last two years, ANC leaders have spoken again of a negotiated resolution of the country's problems if this were certain to bring a democratic system no longer based on race.
Mbeki, fit, trim and intellectually agile despite his age and 24 years in prison, could play a key role in what the government and the ANC both see as a "period of pre-negotiation," as a senior official in Pretoria describes the present situation.
Could Strengthen Leadership
In the view of political analysts here, Mbeki could bring stronger, more mature leadership to the anti-apartheid movement in the country, tighten its links to the ANC's headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, and possibly encourage other blacks to participate in discussions on the country's political future.
The government undoubtedly hoped that his release would improve its image. But Mbeki, who met with Mandela for an hour Thursday before his release, said officials also expected that "I would play my part, especially if my other comrades joined me in playing a part to the benefit of our country."
But his present plans, he said, are to rejoin his wife and find a house in New Brighton, a black township outside Port Elizabeth, where he lived before his arrest.
The government gave no reason for its action, referring only to Botha's statement to Parliament in August that, in a change of policy, security prisoners would no longer be required to renounce violence as a condition for their release and would now be considered for release on the same basis, including advanced age and poor health, as other prisoners.
A 'Listed Person'
Mbeki said the government has imposed no conditions on his release, although a government official reminded newsmen that after his brief Port Elizabeth press conference he could not, as a "listed person," be legally quoted in South Africa.
And Mbeki immediately declared that he had changed none of his basic views during his 24 years in prison.
"The ideas for which I went to jail, and for which the ANC stands, I still embrace," he said. "I am still a member of the South African Communist Party, and I still embrace Marxist views."
He did hedge a bit on the issue of violence. "I couldn't give you a direct answer on that," he said. "Violence comes as a result of things. It is something determined by circumstances."
Blacks had turned to violence, he said, as they sought "a force against force," implying that the ANC's armed struggle might be ended if negotiations offered a better chance. But he said he will continue to support that low-level insurgency as long as the ANC sees it as necessary.
Trained Activists in Prison
Mbeki, a tough-minded intellectual renowned as the ANC's best political organizer at the time of his arrest in 1963, spent virtually his entire time in prison on Robben Island, a penal colony off Cape Town, and with Mandela and other ANC leaders transformed it into a virtual university that has now trained two generations of black activists.