The repatriation to South Africa of Major Wynand du Toit the South African commando captured in Angola in June 1985, kindled speculation that it might presage the release of the jailed African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela.
But the government was quick to deny that there was any link between Mandela and the exchange of Du Toit for 135 men: European anti-apartheid activists, Klaas de Jonge and Pierre Albertini, and 133 Angolan government soldiers held prisoner by South African-backed Unita rebels in Angola. There was no connection, a representative for President Botha's Office told Beeld. Hours later Foreign Minister Pik Botha denied in parliament that there was a parallel, arguing that the prisoners involved in Monday's exchange were captives in a foreign country, not men convicted in a court of law in their own country.
But PW Botha himself linked the fate of Mandela with that of Du Toit in his opening speech in parliament in January 1986. It is one of three key statements he has made on the release of political prisoners in the past 30 months. "I am conscious of the fact that Mr Mandela has been in prison for a long time and that he is now in his sixties," Botha said in 1986.
Recording that he had given the matter much thought, Botha said: "In principle, I would be prepared to consider his release on humanitarian grounds." Botha then made the connection: "But I think also of Captain Wynand Pretorius Johannes du Toit at present held in an Angolan prison." He went on to refer to two prominent Soviet dissidents: banished nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and jailed intellectual Anatoly Scharansky, who, Botha said, had been convicted of "treason" and "anti-Soviet agitation".
Botha concluded with a question and comment. "If I were to release Mr Nelson Mandela on humanitarian grounds, could Captain Wynand du Toit, Andre Sakharov and Anatoly Shcharansky not also be released on humanitarian grounds? "A positive response … could certainly form the basis of negotiations between interested governments." As it transpired, however, the releases were initiated by the Soviet rather than the South African government. Shcharansky was released from a labour camp in a prisoner exchange with the West Germany. He subsequently emigrated to Israel.
Later Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow from his place of banishment, with Western correspondents being free to interview him. The release of Du Toit completed the trio of releases which Botha implicitly set as the quid pro quo for Mandela's release. But the government is now loosening the link forged by Botha, arguing that too much time has passed between the 1986 speech and Du Toit's release and that the freeing of De Jonge and Albertini and the 133 Angolans for Du Toil was itself a more than adequate trade-off.
That does not mean that the government has no intention of releasing Mandela, only that it wants to keep its options open and to control the timing should it decide to free him. Comparison of Botha's three most recent major statements on Mandela suggests that he is groping for a formula to release him.
In January 1985 Botha told parliament that he would consider releasing Mandela if the ANC leader renounced violence, adding: "The choice is his. All that is required of him now is that he should unconditionally reject violence as a political instrument." Mandela, however, refused to do so, arguing that the onus was not on him to denounce the "armed struggle" against apartheid but on Botha to relinquish deployment of armed force to protect apartheid Botha's statement gave the initiative to Mandela: in the sense that it was Mandela who, by rejecting or refusing to reject violence, determined whether he would remain in jail. It meant, in effect, that it was he rather than Botha who held the key to his cell door.
Botha sought to rectify that in part by his January 1986 statement. He did so more effectively last month in another statement to parliament. Backtracking on his 1986 declaration, Botha said: "Renunciation of violence, like any other single positive factor, can contribute towards a good prognosis (for release) but is not decisive in own right." Several additional factors had to be considered, including the "interests of the state", Botha added.
Logically it inferred that the interests of the state might outweigh Mandela's refusal to renounce violence and that the ANC leader might be released even while refusing to retract his conviction that armed struggle was justified. Botha's latest statement on August 13 is seen by diplomats as a "facilitating statement" clearing the way for the release of Mandela after more than 25 years.
Whether the government will to so is a matter of conjecture. But it is interesting that it has given itself the option of doing so. A majority in the cabinet is said to favour freeing him. But the final decision still lies with Botha, a man who, as he grows older, becomes more difficult to fathom and whose actions are thus harder to predict.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.