WASHINGTON — Imagine the privileged status of an opposition politician who has been protected from making mistakes for more than a quarter of a century, who suddenly finds himself in the middle of discussions about his nation's future.
The government begs him to enter into dialogue; he holds back. When he finally issues a statement, everyone quarrels over what he really means.
That is precisely Nelson Mandela's situation today. The one-time head of the African National Congress is the most widely accepted black leader in South Africa, increasingly being treated as if he holds the fate of South Africa in his hands.
There is one major problem, of course: Mandela is in prison--and has been for 27 years. No one can figure out how to release him on the right terms.
"It is quite remarkable," the Rev. Desmond Tutu, archbishop of Cape Town, said recently, on the occasion of Mandela's 71st birthday. "Young blacks believe that the day Mandela is released, everything will be all right."
Amazingly, key members of the white government that once convicted Mandela of treason and sentenced him to life in prison now appear to feel the same way. They suddenly realize that any attempt at peaceful transition from apartheid must have Mandela's blessing. That is presumably why P.W. Botha, the lame-duck president, astonished South African countrymen by inviting Mandela to tea at his official residence a few weeks ago.
In a cautious statement released after the meeting (and cleared by the government), Mandela said he "would like to contribute to the creation of a climate which would promote peace in South Africa," reiterating his longstanding position that "dialogue with the mass democratic movement and, in particular, the (ANC), is the only way of ending violence and bringing peace to our country."
Ever since, white politicians and exiled ANC officials (including military commanders based in Zambia) have been debating what Mandela was really saying: Was he urging blacks to fight on until the ANC, originally founded in 1912, is finally recognized by the regime, or was he giving his tentative (and long-sought) pledge that ANC violence will stop if discussions begin? Such a pledge may no longer be Mandela's to give; it is not clear that ever-more militant ANC fighters inside and outside the country are still inclined to follow him. But the attention his words commanded is a sign that even after all these years in prison, Mandela remains the man to watch in South Africa.
Back in custody--actually now a form of house arrest--at a bungalow with a swimming pool on the grounds of a prison near Cape Town, Mandela must be enjoying a good laugh.
It would be callous to minimize the hardships Mandela has suffered, first living underground for 18 months, then being arrested in 1962. He was held in maximum-security prisons until concern over his health caused him to be moved last year. He missed the opportunity to be with his two daughters as they were growing up. And, as a "banned" person, he could not speak out or be quoted publicly.
Meanwhile, however, he attained the status of mythic hero. Mandela's every idea--albeit expressed many years ago--was taken by blacks and other government opponents as a precept, if not a weapon, in the struggle for equality in South Africa.
By denying him a public audience, the government saved Mandela from having to take controversial positions on such matters as the black-consciousness movement toward self-reliance, on disinvestment and Western economic sanctions or on the ruling National Party's effort to reform apartheid rather than dismantle it.
Botha's bizarre friendship offensive seems a public preparation for Mandela's release. But why now, with parliamentary elections looming and the far right gaining strength among Afrikaners?
Part of the answer may lie in the precarious situation in the cities where racial tensions have, if anything, worsened in recent years.
This has been ignored by many outside observers who have tended to focus on the recent progress elsewhere in Southern Africa: a transition to independence in Namibia and a tentative truce in Angola's civil war. Emergency press restrictions in South Africa have largely succeeded in keeping the story of urban violence off the U.S. front pages and TV news.
Yet rival black groups still fight it out in urban townships and white death squads reminiscent of Central America have been terrorizing (sometimes murdering) white opponents of the regime. Black leaders with genuine credibility refuse to negotiate with the government and, instead, take a steadily tougher line. Conservative efforts to intensify local apartheid restrictions have been met with successful black economic boycotts.
At the same time, while it is difficult to measure their precise effect, U.S. and other economic sanctions have begun to take hold and have added to white South Africans' sense of isolation.