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Mandela: focus of S. African political debate. Web of obstacles deters compromise that could lead to activist's release

The jailed, graying patriarch of a banned black nationalist group has captured center stage in the debate over South Africa's future. Nelson Mandela is -- depending on whom you talk to -- either a last hope for racial conciliation or the leader-in-waiting of a Marxist revolution.

Yet, he and his African National Congress have become the focus of moves to arrange a compromise between the white-minority government and its foes in the political violence of the past 20 months.

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President Pieter W. Botha has recently hinted twice at a softening toward ``noncommunist'' members of the ANC, calling on them to renounce violence and to negotiate. Officials have reiterated his offer to free Mr. Mandela, a founding member of the group, if he forswears violence.

Mandela, meanwhile, has told a member of the country's white parliamentary opposition that he favors ending violence and entering political negotiations with the government and other groups.

Anxious to play go-between is the ``eminent persons' group'' set up by the last Commonwealth Conference to try to encourage negotiated compromise. The EPG is expected to resume talks with the government in mid-May.

But Monitor interviews with government officials, Mandela supporters, and the opposition parliamentarian who visited him in jail have highlighted a web of potential obstacles to compromise.

Among them are the following:

The government seems torn on the issue of freeing Mandela, a founding ANC member serving -- since 1964 -- a life sentence for ``conspiracy to overthrow the government by revolution.''

Mandela has rejected any explicit condition on his release -- saying through his daughter last year it is wrong to ask of him a pledge to nonviolence when government troops and police have taken no such vow.

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Political extremists -- whites on the right and blacks on the left -- threaten to undermine the ability of the government and Mandela to accept or implement any mutual understanding.

This last problem led Mandela's most recent visitor, veteran white opposition figure Helen Suzman, to feel compromise is urgent. She said any delay risked endangering Mandela's ability, should he gain freedom, to check violence among radical blacks.

The latest reminder of the country's growing polarization came in the form of a lunchtime explosion yesterday at a shopping center in a posh white suburb of Johannesburg. Initial reports said it appeared to have been caused by a bomb. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Mrs. Suzman said she was ``struck by Mandela's lack of rancor, his determination to create a climate for negotiation.'' Detailing her first visit with him since 1983, she said he told her if the government freed him and legalized the ANC, ``the ANC would declare a truce and enter negotiations.''

According to Mrs. Suzman, he envisaged a place in negotiations for moderate Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi -- a man denounced as a sell-out by many of the younger urban black activists. He also described the government's recent shelving of the pass-law system -- which restricted where blacks could live, work, and travel -- as an important, though insufficient, move away from apartheid -- the official policy of forced racial segregation.

But two government officials, citing testimony from Mandela's trial in the 1960s, told the Monitor they were convinced Mandela is a Marxist who does not represent the ``non-Marxist moderate majority'' of the country's blacks.

They said he must unequivocally renounce violence before any release. This implied that Botha's recent distinction between ``communists'' and ``nationalists'' within the ANC would not offer machinery for compromise with Mandela.

A younger member of the President's party offered a different view. He said he thought that the President wanted Mandela out of jail, where he would have to operate in the rough and tumble of daily politics rather than bask as a symbolic leader of black protest.

``The question, I think, is of timing. The main voice on that issue is our security experts,'' he told the Monitor.

The dilemma of these security experts is whether to risk a chance that Mandela might provide the unifying voice the governments' black critics have so far lacked, and thus hike pressure inside the country and abroad for more rapid change. Also of concern, a senior official said privately, was the possibility of a violent backlash from right-wing whites.

Botha's strategy, officials said, was to make far-reaching -- yet peaceful, gradual, and managed -- reforms that would give blacks a voice in South Africa yet ensure the security of ``minorities.''

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