The other prisoners in poor health

If 77-year-old veteran ANC leader Govan Mbeki was released on compassionate grounds, as President PW Botha implied this week then several other political prisoners should also have been considered, according to the Release Mandela Campaign. "Oscar Mpetha, although in good health and virile, has had one of his legs amputated (from the knee down) and Harry Gwala is partially paralysed," said RMC representative Aubrey Mokoena. "Surely Botha's claimed compassion should have included the release of a one-legged man and a man who is paralysed."

Azapo agreed that prisoners like Mpetha, Gwala, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and PAC president Zeph Mothopeng should have been considered for release, if Botha was sincere. "Mandela recently underwent an operation and according to reports Mothopeng had to be moved to Johannesburg because of his failing health," said Azapo representative Lybon Mabasa.

Mpetha RMC president and veteran trade union leader, has served two years of a five-year sentence. He was detained in August 1980 and nearly three years later, after a terrorism conviction, he was released on bail. His appeal against sentence failed and he was jailed in 1985 with the government ignoring national and international condemnation at confining a 78-year-old diabetic.

Gwala, 66, a former Communist Party member, has been suffering from a terminal motor neuron condition and, is reported to be paralysed. His transfer from Robben Island to the Pietermaritzburg prison two months agoled to speculation that he may be released on medical grounds. Gwala was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977 for recruiting people for military training.

The 74-year-old Mothopeng is currently serving his third spell in prison, this time for 15 years. He was found guilty on charges under the Terrorism Act at the marathon Bethel Trial in 1979. Mothopeng, who is presently being held at Johannesburg Prison, is known to be suffering from a cancerous tumour.

Opening the Cape National Party congress this week Botha said the government would not hesitate to show compassion when this became the overriding factor in considering the release of security prisoners.  "If prisoners do not meet the conditions I laid down in parliament they will not be released, but at the same time … will not hesitate to show mercy if we feel mercy must be the determining factor," he said.

A few days earlier Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee had told newsmen Mbeki had been selected for release because he was 77 and starting to show signs of his age. He also conceded that if anything happened to one of the major security prisoners while still in jail it would play into the hands of radical activists. But Mbeki, who was released last Friday, showed no obvious signs of ageing and has displayed remarkable stamina for a man his age. 

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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