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Free at Last!

Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela walked out of South Africa's Victor Verster Prison on Sunday, and black people danced in the streets. In this country, black people also expressed their joy. Sunday night at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, a Black History Pageant was dedicated to him, as more than 600 people shouted his name in unison. What a difference a day makes! Just days before that historic morning, it was illegal even to print Mandela's portrait in South African newspapers.

Sunday morning was a tearful time for me as I pressed my hand to the television screen to symbolically touch his strong, weather-beaten face. My tears were for his suffering, his pain and the pride I felt that this 71-year-old African warrior stood firm for his principles.

In his speech after his release, Mandela said that the initial conditions that had caused the African National Congress (ANC) to resort to armed struggle in 1961, after decades of peaceful resistance, "still exist today" and that the ANC had no option but to continue.

"Our struggle has reached a decisive moment," Mandela said. "We call on our people to seize the moment.... To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process toward the complete eradication of apartheid."

We must not forget that South Africa is a country that has laws built on classification by race - white, black, Indian and colored (people of mixed race). There are restrictions on travel, segregated living areas, segregated education and complete white control of the economy.

This is the place where black people have virtually no voting rights; where dozens of black people have been hanged for their opposition to the apartheid system; where there is a policy that gives 13 percent of the land to blacks not needed in urban labor to move to their tribal homelands. Some 5-million whites occupy 87 percent of the land, in a country with 21-million black South Africans.

In 1983, the South African government wrote new constitutions for whites and colored, but not for blacks. This is a country where, in 1986, some 30,000 people, most of them black and many of them children, were detained during a state of emergency. This is a country that has allowed the maiming, dehumanizing and murder of thousands of black men, women and children for generations.

Randall Robinson, executive director of Transafrica, a political and human rights organization, was correct when he said on NBC's Today Show Monday that the U.S. State Department should make encouraging remarks to President Frederik de Klerk, but that de Klerk's action in freeing Mandela doesn't warrant inviting de Klerk to the White House, as Bush has done.

De Klerk is no hero. He's just a sensible head of state who understands the economic turmoil his country has been through because of sanctions from worldwide governments.

Inviting Mandela to the White House was logical, but I wonder why Bush called, five minutes later, to invite de Klerk. Did Bush come up with that brilliant idea on his own? Or did some official standing nearby remind Bush that they will lose hundreds of white voters if they invite an uppity African to the White House and not the white head of state from the same country?

Already, government leaders and the South African government are placing the burden for future peace on Mandela. Where I come from, that's blaming the victim if something goes wrong after the oppressor has for generations been the reason for the problem.

It's astounding that they want a 71-year-old man - incarcerated for the better part of his life and ignored by government leaders while powerful corporations reaped profits from his people and his country - to keep the peace. They're hoping Mandela will unite the various black nationalist groups fighting the government in Pretoria and ease the fears of the country's white minority.

That is not Mandela's job. He has his own agenda, which certainly must include his family.

His wife Winnie looked like a blushing bride holding hands Sunday with her husband. On television Monday morning, she looked radiant.

What a testament she is to all black women, whose images are so often maligned in the media. She has been stoic, patient and unrelenting in the defense of her people, while continuing to nurture love for her husband.

Winnie has written about their breathless courtship and marriage.

She understood that Nelson always belonged to the people. After their marriage, because Mandela had to go underground with his work for the ANC, she often had to wait for his late-night knocks on the window.

There were also secret meetings in the homes of sympathetic whites.

Finally, there was that terrible day when Mandela was arrested and whisked away. It has been written that, during their 27-year-marriage, they have had only four months together.

Now she finally has him home, even if still not to herself. It doesn't matter. The kind of love Winnie Mandela has for her husband transcends rude reporters, heads of state and his beloved people.

At the First Annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival a couple of weeks ago in Eatonville, stage and screen actress Ruby Dee read an imaginary letter from Winnie Mandela to Ruby and her husband Ossie about Winnie's life with Nelson and her people after the destruction of apartheid. Dee had written the letter in honor of black South Africans' struggle and in honor of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

The letter invited Ruby and Ossie to the celebration of the end of apartheid. It talked about the black children of South Africa, how they finally had schools, were well-fed and healthy looking. Winnie wrote that the shanties had been torn down and people were building houses, that there were no longer any laws that required black miners to live apart from their wives and children.

The letter ended with Winnie writing that love transcends distance, separation and prison walls. That she had married Nelson over and over in her mind during their years of separation. That their love and marriage had become a thriving spirit.

"But, Ruby, I must say, it was indescribable to feel the touch of my beloved Nelson after 27 years," Ruby Dee read.

Long live Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and the brave people of South Africa. The governmental sanctions against South Africa must remain intact because apartheid is solidly intact.

Perhaps the best way the American people can celebrate Mandela's release is to write letters to their congressional representatives urging that more stringent sanctions be applied to South Africa and that the ones in place not be lifted.

It might produce even more miracles.