CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Black liberation soldier Gordon Webster used to fight his white oppressors with land mines, guns and stealth. But on Thursday he was battling the state from a hospital bed, under heavy guard, with the only weapon he had left--his life.
The young inmate, on the 23rd day of a hunger strike and in critical condition, is one of about 130 South African prisoners on strike trying to force the government to grant them "political prisoner" status and immediate release.
"It's now just us against the government," said Webster, 28. "One side will have to bend. And we are determined to carry on forever."
It has been 10 months since the South African government promised the African National Congress that it would free all political prisoners. The agreed deadline passed at the end of April, and many of the ANC-supporting prisoners who remained in jail went on a hunger strike.
Now the condition of Webster and five other inmates has deteriorated, and they were recently moved from the penal colony on Robben Island to a second-floor ward at Somerset Hospital, which stands amid the squawking sea gulls of Cape Town's harbor.
The inmates say their crimes were politically inspired and that the government must release them immediately. But President Frederik W. de Klerk notified Webster and some others Thursday that he was turning them down because their crimes were too serious.
Human rights lawyers argue that Webster, a former ANC unit commander serving a 25-year sentence for murder and terrorism, fits the definition of political prisoner perfectly. He was following orders from the ANC.
But Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee says Webster and several hundred other inmates are "borderline cases" that will be referred to a joint government-ANC panel, which is scheduled to meet from June 11-13 to make non-binding recommendations to De Klerk.
To continue the hunger strike in the meantime is "completely irresponsible," Coetsee said Wednesday.
Webster and his colleagues don't trust the government or its promises. And by refusing food and drinking only water, they're trying to force the government to make a decision now or risk the public outcry that would result from the starvation death of a prisoner.
He doesn't appear to have much time. On Thursday, his tall frame, already 30 pounds underweight, was draped in a pair of loose brown pajamas and a threadbare blue hospital robe. His forehead was pounding, and he squinted with pain through his brown-rimmed glasses.
He said he has been forgetting names and having dizzy spells. He hasn't been sleeping well at night, and, when he awakes, he is often confused about where he is. On Sunday, he passed out cold for about five minutes and was resuscitated by nurses.
Chris Hani, chief of staff of the ANC military wing, visited Webster and his colleagues Thursday and promised to keep the pressure on the government to secure their release.
"We'll do all we can to get Gordon out," Hani told Webster's sister in the hospital corridor.
"It's so strange," Webster said after Hani left. "Here's the man who gave us the orders. He's free and we're still here. To this government, we are pipsqueaks. We don't mean anything more than a few grains of sand."
The release of political prisoners had been a government trade-off for the ANC's decision to suspend its guerrilla war.
And the ANC's deputy president, Nelson Mandela, who founded the ANC's guerrilla war, admits he is baffled by the continued imprisonment of his fellow ANC soldiers.
"The government has admitted that apartheid has failed, that it was wrong," Mandela said this week. "I say the logical consequence of that is that those sent to jail because of opposition to apartheid were wrongly jailed."
The ANC is staging marches and rallies countrywide to put pressure on the government. A group appeared outside the Somerset Hospital window to sing freedom songs on Thursday, but they were chased away by police.
The government has released about 1,000 political prisoners, but it is reluctant to free the several hundred charged with more serious offenses, especially those such as Webster who were convicted of killing white police or civilians.
Gordon Webster is the youngest child of a Colored (mixed-race) subsistence farmer in Natal province. His father died before he turned 2, and he was raised by his mother and 9 brothers and sisters.
He left South Africa in 1984, at the age of 21, for military training at ANC camps in Angola. He didn't tell any family members that he was leaving, to protect them from the security police questioning that followed, but he left a note for his cousin. It said simply: "I can't tolerate this . . . anymore."