Mandela Celebrates, Cuts Prisoners' Terms

PRETORIA, South Africa -- President Nelson Mandela reduced the sentences of thousands of prisoners Thursday as South Africans celebrated Freedom Day to mark last year's historic elections that ended white minority rule.

In a gesture symbolizing the peaceful transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy, Mandela said he would remit prison terms for anyone convicted of politically related possession of arms, ammunition or explosives before Dec. 6, 1993. It was not clear whether the reduction would be partial or total.

Additionally, all prisoners except child abusers would see their sentences reduced 25 percent, or a maximum of six months.

"We hope that through this act of goodwill, we are sending a message to all prisoners that they should mend their ways and make a fresh start," Mandela said.

Mandela, himself a political prisoner for 27 years under the old apartheid regime, wore an uncharacteristic suit and tie as he gave a speech marking the holiday before the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Bands played and hundreds of majorettes marched in a festive parade through the capital.

Mandela's African National Congress won last year's elections, giving the black majority political power for the first time. Many predicted a racial war between extremist whites and blacks, but the country, once one of the world's most racist, has been largely free of political violence since.

"Over the past year, we have confounded the prophets of doom, and we shall do so for many more years to come," Mandela said.

He praised South Africans for patiently waiting for economic reforms to bear fruit. He urged them to pay their bills, vote in local elections in November and give input for a new constitution.

"We must, as a nation, strive to do better all the time," Mandela said. "This is the challenge that we face as we enter the second freedom year."

Mandela's amnesty gesture was in line with the reconciliation he has constantly preached. However, it stops short of demands by white and black extremists for the release of their activists who committed political violence right up to Mandela's swearing-in.

A sour note was struck by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. Thousands of members bearing shields, clubs and whips staged a protest march through the eastern city of Durban to press demands for Zulu autonomy. Rival ANC supporters set up roadblocks to prevent more Inkatha militants from reaching Durban.

No violence was immediately reported, but police kept a close eye on the crowd in Durban. Witnesses reported hearing loud sounds that could have been cars being vandalized.

White right-wingers meanwhile heaped scorn upon Freedom Day. The Afrikaner Volksfront, which demands an independent white state, flew its flag at half mast before its Pretoria offices.