PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — In a strange twist in South Africa's unfolding political drama, Nelson Mandela paid a visit yesterday to three right-wing extremists who are starving themselves for a cause Mr. Mandela spent his life fighting.
The anti-apartheid leader went to the hospital rooms of the three men, all members of a radical white supremacist organization known as the Orde Boerevolk (Order of the Boer Nation) and under arrest for two bombings in which one man was killed and 13 others injured.
Mr. Mandela called for the release of the hunger-strikers on humanitarian grounds and said he would take up their case with President F. W. de Klerk at a meeting today.
He said the men claim to have acted under instructions from state security officials and could provide important information about covert activities of the state security agencies.
"These men impress me as being very sincere, and I am convinced that they have very valuable information to give about the role of the National Intelligence Service and military intelligence who had instructed them to commit some heinous offenses," Mr. Mandela told reporters.
"We feel that it is important to have all these matters in the open if we are going to have a lasting settlement," he said.
Mr. Mandela was accompanied by Wim Cornelius, a lawyer for the three hunger strikers, and by right-wing leader Nic Strydom, whose son murdered seven blacks in a 1988 killing spree in Pretoria.
The three accused men -- Henry Martin, 49, Adrian Maritz, 43, and Lood van Schalkwyk, 53 -- have been on hunger strike for 57, 50 and 43 days, respectively. They remain under guard at a Pretoria hospital, and their lawyer and relatives say they are weak and frail after weeks without food.
The men claim they should be released as political prisoners, under the same agreement that led to the release earlier this year of hundreds of prisoners linked to the African National Congress.
The three said they acted out of political motivations during the bombings last year. Right-wing groups have threatened in recent weeks to unleash violence unlike anything South Africa has ever seen if Mr. de Klerk goes through with his plan to negotiate a new constitution that gives blacks and whites equal rights and an equal voice in government.
The ANC, Mr. Mandela's organization, is the government's main negotiating partner, and Mr. Mandela went to prison for 27 years becauseof his fight against the apartheid system, in which a small white minority ran the government and repressed the black majority.
His beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of the white extremists he visited at H. F. Verwoerd Hospital, who say they will never live in a country ruled by blacks. ANC spokesmen have said they think the three men have information that would confirm ANC allegations of state-sponsored violence against blacks.
The visit seemed to be welcomed by many right-wing leaders and activists, some of whom chatted with Mr. Mandela before he met the prisoners.
Mr. Cornelius said his three clients thanked the anti-apartheid leader for his humanitarian gesture.
He said the meeting was "warm and in the spirit of human kindness."
The gesture might also have the effect of changing the ANC's image among some right-wingers who in the past have berated and despised the ANC and Mr. Mandela.
"This is the first time the left wing and the right wing are in agreement on one specific issue," said Mr. Cornelius.
One right-wing leader, C. J. Vermaak, announced his resignation from the Orde Boerevolk because of his objection to the Mandela visit, which took place without incident.