SA killers are freed in search for peace: Two mass murderers jailed for life have been released in a spirit of national unity, writes John Carlin in Durban

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IT COULD have been a television advertisement for the mythical new South Africa. On a bright spring morning in Natal, an elderly, black gentleman, a tall, young, Coloured man and a smiling, white blonde strolled down a gentle hill, hand in hand.

The scrum of cameramen and photographers, the squad of policemen with their automatic rifles, the crowd of stomping African National Congress supporters and the heavy prison gate reminded you what was really happening: an episode in South African politics which the government and the majority of its white constituents had hoped would never come to pass.

Robert McBride, the most notorious political prisoner remaining behind bars, was walking out of jail yesterday with, on his right, Walter Sisulu, the ANC's 80-year-old deputy president, and on his left his wife Paula, whom he married three years ago on Death Row.

Mr McBride is what in South Africa they call a Coloured because, it is reputed, his great- grandfather, Major John McBride (who was executed by the British after the Irish uprising of Easter 1916), had a liaison with a black woman during his years fighting against the British in the Boer War. Eighty-five years later, Mr McBride turned against his ancestor's allies joined the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and carried out a terrorist outrage that lingers painfully in the collective white psyche.

He planted a car bomb outside a crowded Durban bar, killing three white people and injured more than 80. A year later, in 1987, he was sentenced to death by a judge who, sensing what it was that had driven him to wage war against apartheid, expressed his regret that the law left him no other choice.

Condemned, it seemed, to the same fate by the modern-day Boers as his great-grandfather was by the colonial British, Mr McBride had his sentence commuted to life last year by President F W de Klerk. At a press conference yesterday a journalist asked him if he was grateful to Mr de Klerk. Terse, as in all his answers, he replied: 'Not at all. He did what he did because he was travelling to Ireland that same week.'

Would he take up arms again if the situation arose? 'If the situation were to be the same as in 1985, I would take up arms again.' But his concern now, he added with a burst of feeling, was to do what he could to encourage national reconciliation.

An indication of how badly that was needed could be seen, he said, in the contrasting manner in which the white press had been covering his release and that of the other famous prisoner freed yesterday, the white supremacist Barend Strydom.

'In my case they always say I killed 'innocent civilians'. In Strydom's case they just say that he killed 'blacks'.'

Mr Strydom, who also got married on Death Row (but most certainly not across the colour line), left from a side-door of Pretoria prison yesterday with what a reporter for the South African Press Association described as 'a smile similar to the one he wore during his assassination blitz', four years ago.

If the reporter was being unusually sardonic for a SAPA man it was probably because of his pique at Mr Strydom's refusal to talk to the press. The reason, his wife Karyn explained, was that they had signed a lucrative deal with a Sunday newspaper for an exclusive interview.

It will be interesting to learn whether experience has amended the attitude he displayed in court towards the eight people he shot dead at random in broad daylight in central Pretoria in November 1988. His family had taught him, he explained from the dock, to view blacks as animals.

Mr Strydom, who was released at the government's initiative after the ANC had secured the freedom of Mr McBride and hundreds of other political prisoners, said at his trial in May 1989: 'During the shooting . . . I smiled. I see myself as a friendly person. It was difficult to suppress my laughter. I smiled and carried on.'

In passing sentence, the judge remarked that he saw no hope for rehabilitation in Mr Strydom. Describing him as 'worse than other terrorists', the judge said that in all his years on the Bench he had not heard of such unfeeling and cold-blooded action.

(Photograph omitted)