Friday, July 17, 1998 Published at 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
South African prisoners to walk free
Prisoners to go freed in honour of the most famous prisoner of all
The South African government has announced a six-month remission of sentence for prison inmates to mark President Mandela's 80th birthday.
The Correctional Services Minister, Sipo Mzimela, said the move was not intended as an amnesty, but that some 9,000 prison inmates with less than six months to serve will be paroled on Monday.
Mr Mandela's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, said the prisoner release, although a ministerial decision, had the president's 'blessing'.
Prisoners are rejoicing at the news, but opposition leaders from the new United Democratic Movement say the move is irresponsible in light of the country's high crime rate.
The Democratic Party agreed, saying: "This 'present' on the occasion of President Mandela's birthday ... makes a mockery of our criminal justice system and is a slap in the face to the victims of crime."
The National Party said it "would have preferred that murderers, rapists, armed robbers and child molesters be excluded from this remission."
But the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (SAPOHR) welcomed the announcement, calling for more such remissions.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The Correctional Services Minister insisted the generosity did not mean the government was being soft on criminals, saying the release has been "very well thought-out".
He said: "We want to encourage people to improve their behaviour knowing that at the end of the tunnel there is light."
Correspondents say the South African government has been looking for ways to alleviate the serious problem of overcrowding in its prisons.
In the country's prisons, some 148,000 prisoners occupy roughly 250 prisons built to cater for only 96,000 convicts.
President Mandela, perhaps the most famous former prisoner in the world, turns 80 on Saturday.
South Africans are calling his year-long birthday celebrations 'Madiba mania' - a respectful reference to the president's clan name.
The celebrations began on Thursday when President Mandela threw a party for 1,000 orphans in the Kruger game park east of Johannesburg.