HIS name is scrawled on walls from Boston to London to New Delhi. Presidents and foreign ministers intercede on his behalf with the South African government. His cause is the cause of many blacks in America. Throughout Africa and the third world he is a symbol of resistance to racial oppression in South Africa. He is Nelson Mandela, who although imprisoned for 26 years, is looked to by millions of South African blacks as their leader in the fight against injustice and apartheid.
At the age of 70, and after a quarter of a century behind bars, Mr. Mandela's opposition to the excesses of the white regime remains undimmed. Though the government has probed with offers of release hedged with conditions, Mandela has rejected all but unconditional freedom.
As such, he is a monumental problem for the present South African government of President Pieter Botha.
Of late, Mandela has been undergoing medical treatment at a clinic near Cape Town. He was transferred there from prison. The government says his condition has improved to the point where he will soon be ready to leave the clinic. The government has announced that he will not go back to prison.
But will he be freed? No. The government says he will be transferred to ``suitable, comfortable, and secure living accommodation where he will be able to receive family members more freely and on a continual basis.''
In other words, after what he himself calls ``these long, lonely, wasted years,'' Mandela is not to go back to prison. Nor is he yet to be freed. On the one hand, the white government of South Africa seems anxious that Mandela should not end his days in prison. That would only consolidate his martyrdom. But on the other hand, the government is anxious about a white backlash if it should release the former leader of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), whose underground members have engaged in terrorist acts against the government. Underlying the whole problem is the threat of violence - violence if Mandela dies in captivity, violence if he is released.
When he was imprisoned under South Africa's Draconian security laws for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, Mandela proclaimed his commitment to a democratic and free society ``in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.'' When, however, he was offered freedom a few years ago upon the condition that he renounce the ANC's guerrilla war against white rule, he held out for unconditional release.
The political situation is complicated even further by a hardening of opinion on both sides. Over the years, blacks in South Africa have exhibited extraordinary fortitude. That endurance may be running out. Younger blacks, cynical and frustrated, say they have nothing to lose by turning to more extreme and violent means.
But in the white community, the ultra-rightists have been making gains at the expense of the ruling National Party. Attempts by President Botha to dismantle some of the more egregious features of apartheid are under fire from white extremists.
South Africa has averted a racial explosion. The time left for dialogue between whites and blacks may be short. No such dialogue can be meaningful without Mandela's participation.
The government can play with its phased-release scenario for him, but he should become a truly free man before it is too late.