The unconditional release of seven African National Congress leaders is a resounding political victory for the guerrilla movement at a time its armed wing is relatively dormant.
The hero's welcome given to the political prisoners - six jailed for at least 25 years - reflects the depth of support for the ANC despite government repression throughout the movement's 77-year-old history.The government outlawed the ANC in 1960, and President F.W. de Klerk remains adamant that the organization must renounce violence before it may participate in negotiations on a new constitution.
However, the release of ANC leaders and de Klerk's recent decision to allow peaceful mass protests, "virtually amounts to de facto validation of the banned ANC," said The Sunday Times, the country's largest-circulation newspaper.
"At the very least, the de-demonization of the ANC has began," the newspaper said in an editorial.
After their release, the seven spoke to hundreds of supporters and journalists at a news conference. It was the first time ranking ANC leaders were permitted to engage in political activity in South Africa since the organization was banned.
Government officials have conferred with the ANC's most prominent jailed leader, Nelson Mandela, whose release is widely expected in coming months.
ANC supporters, long denied the chance to express their political sympathies, now wave the green, gold and black ANC flag at marches - an action that previously brought swift police action.
At a rally in Durban last month, the ANC banner was raised at city hall and police allowed it to remain on the flagpole until the demonstration ended.