JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After nearly a quarter century in prison, the newly freed African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki said Saturday that he had emerged to find South Africa's black majority still fighting for equal rights and the country little changed from the uncompromising apartheid he had known earlier.
All the recent reforms here, Mbeki told a press conference, are "peripheral" to the "basic issue--political rights on the same basis for everyone."
"Instead, we observe an escapist policy of a government playing around with the basic, fundamental, crucial issue--political rights."
Arrested in 1963
Mbeki, 77, the ANC's national chairman when he was arrested in 1963, was released by South African authorities last week from Robben Island, a penal colony off Cape Town, where he was serving a life sentence for his part in the ANC's sabotage campaign in the early 1960s.
His release has been widely interpreted here as a significant government initiative to promote a political dialogue with the country's black majority and as a trial run for the eventual release of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly the pre-eminent black nationalist leader, with whom Mbeki was jailed after both were convicted of trying to overthrow white minority rule.
Mbeki, who met with Mandela for an hour's talk before he was released Thursday, added to the speculation that Mandela and other ANC leaders might soon be freed. Asked whether the government is negotiating with Mandela about his release, Mbeki said, "When things are in flux, there are certain (topics) on which it would not be proper for me to answer your questions."
But he did say that Mandela viewed his release, along with other black leaders, as a potentially far-reaching contribution to resolving the South African crisis.
"Comrade Mandela is greatly concerned about what is taking place in the country, and he is not taking a propagandistic stance . . . in the search for a solution to the problems," Mbeki said. "He does not see his release as something that would give rise to anything other than resolution of the problem, and he would bend all his efforts to that goal."
And Mbeki said that, mindful of the possible release of other political prisoners, he would, "to the best of my ability and the best of the ability of all the others involved, do things in a responsible manner."
He said he intends to defer participating in political rallies and similar activities. The government placed no conditions on his release, Mbeki said, although it later reminded South African news media that, as a "listed person," he may not be quoted inside the country.
Police Take Positions
Scores of riot police, some armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers, took up positions outside the South African Council of Churches, where Mbeki's press conference was held, when about 200 black youths who attended a subsequent meeting with Mbeki started to move into the street, continuing their singing and dancing to celebrate the ANC leader's release.
Albertina Sisulu, co-president of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 750 anti-apartheid groups, had earlier called on the youths and other militants to "treat the release of Comrade Mbeki with the dignity that this occasion demands."
The youths dispersed when police sprayed tear gas at them, the crowds who gathered to watch as well as local and foreign newsmen who had covered the press conference.
"This is unrest, or could be unrest, and we are taking action under the state of emergency," a senior police officer told reporters at the scene. "Go--or you all may soon be on Robben Island yourselves!" No clashes or arrests were reported.
Mbeki, while maintaining a more conciliatory position than most anti-apartheid activists here, dismissed as a diversion the current proposal by President Pieter W. Botha for a multiracial "national council" that would have advisory powers on black affairs and could become the forum for negotiating the new "power-sharing" constitution sought by the government as a solution to the country's prolonged crisis.
'A Dummy Organization'
"We advise the people to keep out of it," Mbeki said. "It is a dummy organization, and people should know you do not get milk from a dummy (pacifier). We would like a direct course taken into the core of the issue, and I repeat that the basic question is still political rights."
Even before Mbeki spoke, the black nationalist Winnie Mandela had apologized for welcoming him back without having rid South Africa of apartheid.
"We are almost ashamed to introduce you back to the same conditions you fought against over 24 years ago," she said. "We are ashamed to be in your presence without presenting a liberated country to you."
Influential in Own Right