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31 More Political Prisoners Freed; Call For Release of Others

March 22, 1991

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Thirty-one political prisoners freed Thursday under a government amnesty urged President F.W. de Klerk to quickly release other activists or risk a breakdown in talks with the African National Congress.

A statement read at a news conference repeated past ANC threats that negotiations could be derailed if political prisoners are not all free by April 30. The government has not accepted the deadline.

The freed prisoners, all members of the African National Congress’ paramilitary wing, were among 40 people granted amnesty Monday for political crimes.

They left Robben Island prison by boat and were greeted at Cape Town’s harbor by about 150 people waving ANC flags and shouting ″Welcome home, comrades 3/8″

On board, the former prisoners also waved ANC flags and blew kisses to the crowd. The freed prisoners included John Nene, 48, who was believed to be South Africa’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Nene spent half his life in jail for activities in the anti-apartheid movement. He first was jailed from 1965-75 on Robben Island, then returned in 1977 after being given a life sentence for anti-government activities.

″I feel good,″ Nene said after stepping off the boat, his head protected from the sun by a floppy hat in the ANC colors of black, green and gold.

Asked if he had expected to be freed, Nene said: ″With the talks going on, I thought so, but not so soon.″

The government and ANC began meeting last year shortly after the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who had served 27 years in prison. In August, the government said it would begin freeing political prisoners. At the same time, the ANC agreed to suspend its armed struggle.

The ANC frequently has accused the government of dragging its feet on the release of prisoners, and the 31 freed men repeated this accusation at the news conference.

ANC member Msomi Meyiwa said the pace of releases may ″cast a shadow of doubt on the sincerity of the government to resolve the political crisis in our country amicably.″

The ANC says more than 2,500 anti-apartheid activists are still in prison. The government says probably fewer than 1,000 political prisoners remain.

ANC information director Pallo Jordan said seven of the 31 freed Thursday were due for release this year. Jordan said all political prisoners should have been released last year and that the delay was a ″terrible problem″ for the future of negotiations with the government.

″We think it is scandalous that in March 1991, something in the order of 85 percent of political prisoners remain behind bars,″ he said.

Most of the 40 granted amnesty Monday were black anti-apartheid activists, but they included one right-wing extremist who has fought for apartheid. The right-winger, Piet Rudolph, had been jailed since September on suspicion of bombing government targets and stealing weapons from air force headquarters in Pretoria.

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