Nelson Mandela is the undisputed leader of millions of enslaved people. What is remarkable about this fact is that Nelson Mandela has been in South African prisons -- almost incommunicado -- for the last 23 years. He still is in prison.

Now, Mandela has imprisoned his white keepers. This is because the South African government fears that Mandela, who is 68 years old and recently underwent prostrate surgery, might die in prison. His death would cause blacks to rampage and force the government to massacre thousands of them, as it has done in the past. The consequences could be devastating, including forcing institutions and nations that now resist divestment and economic sanctions to divest and impose such sanctions. For a number of South African whites, money speaks louder than black lives.

On the other hand, if the government releases Mandela, it is conceivable that he will galvanize millions of blacks in South Africa to challenge white rule directly. Or, as is hoped by some, force the white authorities to the bargaining table to begin the process of ending not just apartheid but white governance which has created the most efficient, atavistic police state I know and where -- think of it! -- it is illegal not to be a racist!

There is no other comparable black leader in South Africa today. This, too, is ironic. The white authorities over almost a half-century have systematically murdered, forced into exile, co-opted or imprisoned any potential black leader. Accordingly, today, young radicals control sections of black townships and may or may not listen to exiled African National Congress leaders or more moderate voices at home.

What is painfully tragic in this tragic history is that Mandela was a moderate all his early political life, an anti-communist and an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, and a devout believer in a multi-racial South Africa. Beyond his bedrock belief that South Africa must have one-man, one-vote, one country, I do not know what he now believes -- what he really believes. He has not produced a great corpus of thought in prison as have other jailed revolutionaries. He was not allowed to keep a diary or to write down his thoughts. He was not allowed, even, to talk to his wife or colleagues on their controlled visits about anything save family and friends lest their conversations be cut off in mid-sentence at the warder's whim.

That's what makes these two slim volumes important for anyone interested in South Africa then, now and tomorrow.

Nelson Mandela by Mary Benson, an exiled South African who has been active in the anti-apartheid movement over more than three decades, tells Mandela's story in a dispassionate manner -- no mean feat. She sets his life against the times of South Africa's hapless history. What is especially discouraging to read in this biography is how few changes there have been in the plight of the blacks over their history under white heels -- British and Afrikaner.

Thirty-five years ago Nelson Mandela said, "Here in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, a revolution is maturing; it is the profound desire, the determination and the urge of the overwhelming majority of the country to destroy forever the shackles of oppression." Much of the shackled world threw off its colonial bonds. Not the blacks of South Africa. Mandela could emerge today from Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and make the same statement.

Here, then, are the bare bones of his early life -- born to a royal household; trained as a lawyer; forging a lifelong friendshipwith Oliver Tambo, another young lawyer who now is the exiled leader of the ANC; marriage, children and divorce; persuaded to become politically active by Walter Sisulu, one of the great leaders of black South Africa; courtship and marriage to a shy "Winnie from Bizana"; forced underground to become the "Black Pimpernel"; and finally caught and imprisoned. Because of the restrictions imposed upon him, his prison persona is far sketchier. What is clear, however, is that his reputation and stature have grown, not diminished, until today Nelson Mandela is legendary.

Equally legendary is Winnie Mandela, Nelson's second wife. Winnie Madikizela was born in Pondoland, the daughter of a school teacher. She was a bright, shy and introverted child who became South Africa's first black social worker and now is black South Africa's first lady. Gutsy is too tame a word for Winnie Mandela, who for much of her early married life was a derivative leader of her people -- Nelson Mandela's wife. Today, Winnie Mandela is a leader in her own right.

If Winnie Mandela screams like a banshee every time the highest state police collar her for some minor infringement or other of their obscene laws, she has earned the right. The authorities now have harassed and hounded her for more than 20 years, and I do not mean just keeping her from her husband all that time. I mean putting her in prison, banning her repeatedly, which is tantamount to house arrest and effective silence; keeping her in solitary confinement for almost 17 months; banishing her to a small, desolate village far from her home; and, worst of all, keeping her from her children.

"What hurts most then," she writes in Part of My Soul, her autobiography, "I never met a single one of my children's teachers. The very first time my children had to go to school, I had to find a relative to take them because I was forbidden to enter educational premises."

This is a compelling story by an amazing erson who never -- not during long and lonely years -- has lost her dignity nor her determination nor her vision. Indeed, it's so compelling, the South African Government has banned this book saying it was "found to be undesirable."

I have been to South Africa twice, most recently last November, when I came away with the view that Mandela will be released from prison unconditionally (he twice has refused release offers with strings attached). I say this because I think the Botha government has no alternative. The unrest will sputter. South Africa faces a Belfast type situation. Even at the risk of hardening the arteries of obstinacy on the Afrikaner Right, negotiation with Mandela may be the one hope to prevent an escalating urban war.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether he will be as popular out of prison as in -- especially among the young radicals, most of whom were not born when Mandela was imprisoned. As for these young radicals, their taste of power, however limited and transitory, is enough, in my view, to make some of them reluctant to cede some of it to Mandela, the ANC or any of their elders. Finally, the longer it takes the ANC to achieve one-man-one-vote in South Africa, the more the ANC will lose its favor among these impatient young radicals.