HARSH prison terms - totaling 63 years - for three white guerrillas of the outlawed African National Congress have been widely condemned by anti-apartheid and human rights groups here. These critics say that the sentences are at odds with Pretoria's professed goal of creating a climate of reconciliation and peace.
They say that the heavy sentences indicate intolerance just when society should be accepting the inevitability of the ANC's ``armed struggle'' as a response to apartheid's repression.
The three white guerrillas were sentenced by a South African court to jail terms ranging from 18 to 25 years for planning and carrying out urban bombings and passing information to the ANC. They were convicted on charges of terrorism and other offenses under the Internal Security Act.
The three pleaded guilty to the charges, and the trial focused mainly on evidence and argument in mitigation of sentence.
Damian de Lange, a former newspaper reporter who joined the ANC in 1982, was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
Iain Robertson, an ANC soldier trained in the Soviet Union, was sentenced to 20 years.
Susan Westcott, a schoolteacher who is a British national, was given 18 years. The lawyers for the three have lodged an appeal against the sentence.
The fourth member of the cell, Paul Annegarn, who also clashed with Mr. De Lange, is believed to be with the ANC in exile after being sent to a punishment camp for insubordination.
De Lange was the commander of the unit of five highly trained ANC cadres who were arrested by the police on a remote farm in Broederstroom, north of Johannesburg, in May last year.
The arrests were made after one of the group, Hugh Lugg, quit over his misgivings about De Lange and informed the police about the whereabouts of the ANC cell close to the Pelindaba Nuclear Research station.
The police found a potent arms cache, including mortars, explosives, small arms, and heat-seeking missiles.
Mr. Lugg told the Sunday Star in an interview yesterday that he had decided to quit the group when he learned that orders had been issued by the ANC for his execution and because De Lange appeared to approve strikes at civilian targets.
The three escaped the death penalty because it could not be proved that their actions had led to any deaths.
The most serious offense they were convicted of was the detonation of a 90-pound bomb near an Army bus at Benoni, near Johannesburg, in February last year where no one was injured or killed.
But the harsh sentences have created a heated controversy.
Last month Pretoria released ANC veteran Walter Sisulu and seven other long-term prisoners in an act calculated to promote a climate conducive to talks.
Mr. Sisulu and five of his colleagues had each served 25 years in jail for sabotage and attempts to overthrow the white government by force.
Nelson Mandela, who founded the ANC's military wing Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), is serving the 25th year of a life sentence for his role in the conspiracy.
But today Mr. Mandela is seen as a peacemaker and potential statesman. He has been praised by government officials as a man of integrity committed to a peaceful solution in South Africa.
Sisulu, who embraced the three and their families when he visited the court last week, said Saturday he was shocked by the ``harshness and vindictiveness'' of the sentences.
He said the judiciary had a tendency to be ``harsher on whites'' when it came to political trials because they ``are seen to have done something wrong.''
During evidence heard in the first part of the trial in June this year, University of South Africa sociologist Stella Welz said the action of the three had been inspired by idealism rather than criminal deviation.
``They believe that violence cannot be avoided because they are confronting the institutionalized violence and structural violence of the South African state,'' Ms. Welz told the court.
W.J. van den Bergh, the magistrate who handed down the sentence, said the mitigating factors were outweighed by ``the evilness'' of the three's actions.
``Those who commit violence must be punished. This is inescapable,'' he said.
The three were unrepentant throughout the trial. When sentence was passed Friday they were showered with yellow daisies by well-wishers and reconfirmed their support for the ANC with clenched-fist salutes.