JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The South African government imposed severe restrictions Friday on the political activities of Govan Mbeki, the recently freed chairman of the outlawed African National Congress.
Mbeki was prohibited from leaving the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, where he lives, without police permission, from giving interviews to journalists and from preparing any material for publication.
Gen. Hendrik G. de Witt, the national police commissioner, said in Pretoria that he was acting under the 18-month-old state of emergency because he felt that Mbeki's activities would promote "the revolutionary climate" in the country and interfere with the government's effort to quell civil unrest.
Mbeki, 77, was serving a life sentence for his role in organizing a campaign of sabotage in the early 1960s as part of a conspiracy to overthrow South Africa's white-led government. He had been in prison since 1963 but was still regarded by the ANC as its national chairman.
"Mr. Mbeki indicated that the ANC was leading him in his conduct," De Witt said, "and it is clear that his presence at gatherings is being used to provide the ANC with a platform. This state of affairs cannot be allowed."
The implications of the government's action, which followed earlier orders banning two rallies where Mbeki was to have spoken, are as far-reaching as those of his release five weeks ago.
The government now appears to be sharply divided between moderates favoring active measures to promote a broad dialogue with the nation's black majority and subsequent negotiations on a new political system, and hard-liners wanting a tough strategy of pacification followed by measured reforms.
Mbeki's release was meant to be a key element in nurturing the proposed black-white dialogue and a prelude to the release of other imprisoned black nationalists, including ANC leader Nelson Mandela, so they could participate in the negotiations.
But several Cabinet ministers have implied in recent statements that Mbeki's release, which was widely hailed here and abroad, is now regarded as a mistake that must not be repeated.
Shift by Botha Seen
President Pieter W. Botha, who had endorsed Mbeki's release and given moderates in the Cabinet considerable support earlier in the year, appears to have shifted two weeks ago toward the much harder line of the security Establishment.
There has been no upsurge in political violence since Mbeki was released Nov. 5, and he has been moderate, even circumspect in his public statements. But conservative whites on whom the ruling National Party depends have strongly criticized the government's action.
The negotiating strategy is now off track, political observers here believe. They said that Mbeki will not be able to sound out black opinion without traveling, that he will not be able to build his credibility without public meetings, and that he will be all but silenced without access to the news media.
"The restricting of Mbeki is almost like putting him back in prison," the predominantly black Congress of South African Trade Unions said.
The ANC, which had hoped to unify the black community through Mbeki's leadership and to explore how far the white community is willing to go, said from its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia:
"The government is not prepared to allow the chosen and accepted leaders of our people to speak to them directly and freely without any hindrance or harassment from the racist authorities. This action . . . should clearly illustrate that what has happened is that he changed his address from the Robben Island prison to the vast prison that is South Africa."