South Africa's most notorious killers go free in government peace gesture

September 29, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

DURBAN, South Africa -- The South African government released notorious killers from opposite ends of the political spectrum yesterday in the name of political reform and reconciliation.

The most notorious former guerrilla released yesterday was Robert McBride, who planted a car bomb in 1986 that killed three white women. He walked out of prison here to a hero's welcome from dozens of activists from the African National Congress.

They shouted "Viva Robert McBride" and "Long Live," the usual chants of the black liberation movement, as the 29-year-old former guerrilla fighter stepped past the iron, sliding gate of Durban's Westville Prison, his right fist held high in the air.

He was flanked by his wife, Paula, a human rights activist from a wealthy white family who married him while he was on death row, and Walter Sisulu, an ANC veteran who spent 25 years as a political prisoner.

Also freed were two black guerrillas, Mzondeleli Nondula and Mthetheli Mcube, convicted of killing three white farmers with land mines in the mid-1980s in the northern Transvaal.

A smiling Mr. Mcube, 32, said after his release he had no regrets for the killings, but added that a new South Africa should be built on love, forgiveness and reconciliation, not anger and bitterness.

As the three ANC guerrillas were freed, a white killer of blacks was set loose in Pretoria.

Neo-Nazi Barend Strydom, who killed seven blacks in a 1988 shooting spree, was released from Pretoria's Central Prison. He shunned the welcome planned for him by dozens of far-right whites, slipping out of a side exit with his wife, Karin, who also married him while he was on death row.

A self-confessed racist, Mr. Strydom is despised by blacks as much as Mr. McBride is hated by most whites. He is also celebrated by the far right in the same way Mr. McBride is celebrated in leftist circles. Together, they arouse stronger passions than any other figures in South Africa.

A group of white prisoners assaulted Mr. McBride with scissors and chains the day before his release, an assassination attempt assisted apparently by white wardens who left doors open for the attackers. But the black activist said he escaped serious injury when other prisoners, both black and white, came to his defense.

Mr. McBride and Mr. Strydom were granted parole by President F. W. de Klerk as part of a deal worked out between the president and ANC leader Nelson Mandela for the release of all remaining political prisoners. The ANC demanded the release of more than 550 political prisoners associated with the anti-apartheid movement.

Mr. de Klerk agreed to free 150 immediately and the others by Nov. 15. His decision to release Mr. Strydom, the neo-Nazi, was an apparent attempt to mute white criticism of his concession to the ANC.

The president said he considered the crimes of both men "atrocious" but wanted to wipe the slate clean so that black-white political negotiations could move ahead.

"We need to turn our back on the past. We need to clean the slate. We need to remove the word 'retribution' from our political vocabulary," he said after his weekend meeting with Mr. Mandela.

Their agreement brought the ANC back to the negotiating table with Mr. de Klerk's white-minority government after a stalemate of three months.

Mr. McBride is the most prominent ANC activist among the 150 released since last Friday. A member of the ANC's military wing called Mkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation") and the son of an activist who also spent years as a political prisoner, Mr. McBride was celebrated in leftist circles for carrying out daring missions on behalf of the liberation struggle.

However, a car bomb planted at a Durban bar popular with off-duty policemen, killed three white women. Mr. McBride was given three death sentences and 67 years in prison, a sentence commuted last year to life imprisonment.

In talks with the government, the ANC has consistently maintained that he should be released along with other political prisoners because his actions were part of the ANC's military struggle in the 1980s against the apartheid government.

"Whatever Comrade Robert McBride did he did it on the instructions of the high command of Mkhonto we Sizwe and on behalf of the entire political leadership of the African National Congress," ANC regional leader Jeff Hadebe said at a press conference attended by several hundred enthusiastic McBride supporters.

They danced in the aisles and sang freedom songs and shouted "Viva Robert McBride. Viva."

Mr. McBride, a bespectacled man classified as "colored" or mixed-race in South Africa's apartheid lexicon, elicited cheers from the activists when he spoke briefly.

"What has taken place was not because we were bloodthirsty," he said. "The reason we had all those acts was that we were fighting for democracy. We didn't do what we did because we felt like killing people. That was never our aim."

Mr. McBride said he was convinced he would have been released last year, when the government freed more than 1,300 other political prisoners, if his victims had been black instead of white.

"When it's black people who die they are just blacks. When it's whites they are innocent civilians," he said.

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