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The hunger strike ends as Mandela intervenes
A phone-call to Coetsee breaks prisons stalemate.

The decision yesterday by more than 300 Robben Island political prisoners to suspend their hunger-strike came days after Nelson Mandela directly intervened with the South African government. Mandela told a meeting of African National Congress members in Lusaka last Friday that he had telephoned Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee to bring the seriousness of the situation to his attention. 

The ANC deputy president said he was expecting Coetsee to ring him back that evening and he was hoping for "good news". His intervention came as political prisoners in Pretoria, Johannesburg and other centres announced they were joining the 343 Robben Island prisoners in the hunger-strike they launched on February 26 to demand their unconditional release.

Lawyers representing the hunger-strikers met on Wednesday with Coetsee for discussions they described as ''useful". Yesterday 11 lawyers were ferried to the Island to report back and take instructions from their clients, four of whom have been admitted to Cape Town's Somerset Hospital since the hunger-strike began. They returned with the hunger-strikers' decision to suspend their action. "The political prisoners are satisfied that their demands are presently receiving the attention of the minister and they have accordingly decided to suspend the hunger-strike with immediate effect," a statement said. 

Lawyers will communicate the decision to hunger-strikers in other centres, including Marion Sparg and Susan Westcott, who joined the strike a week ago. After meeting in Lusaka last week, the national executive committee of the ANC repeated its call for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, saying the hunger-strike underscored the urgency of the issue. Coetse neither denied nor confirmed Mandela' s intervention. 

A statement by a ministry of justice spokesperson said: "All communications between the minister of justice and people raising a variety of matters virtually on a daily basis are considered as private and confidential; therefore no further details can be furnished." Coetzee was not prepared to engage in public debate on a sensitive matter: announcements would be made "if and when they can serve a purpose", the statement said. 

The four Robben Island prisoners admitted to hospital this week were named by attorneys as Christmas Mofokeng, Abraham Magugule, Thabo Ramaditse and Conrad Lekhombi. They are to be informed of their comrades: decision, attorney Bulelani Ngcuka said. Westcott's co-accused in the Broederstroom trial, Damien de Lange and Ian Robertson - also convicted of terrorism - are among five white male prisoners at Pretoria Central said to be "bearing up well" in their week-long strike. 

De Lange's brother said he was quite surprised State President FW de Klerk had not reacted more positively. There are an estimated 3 000 political prisoners jailed in South Africa, according to Audrey Coleman of the Detainees' Aid Centre. The figure includes people convicted of arson and public violence. Coleman said no more than 20 political prisoners had so far been released. In the past week, the hunger strike of political and awaiting-trial prisoners has spread to Pollsmoor, Westville and Johannesburg prisons. 

The Hunger Strike Support Committee, formed last year when emergency detainees went on a national hunger strike, has also been resusctated and has planned a programme of action to draw attention to the hunger strikers' plight. The programme includes a march to the Rand Supreme Court in Johannesburg to deliver a memorandum outlining the prisoners' stand and demands. The solidarity march will proceed from St Mary's Cathedral at 1pm today. -  Gaye Davis and Cassandra Moodley

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.