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In April 1982 Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town along with senior ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba; they believed that they were being isolated to remove their influence on younger activists. Conditions at Pollsmoor were better than at Robben Island, although Mandela missed the camaraderie and scenery of the island. Getting on well with Pollsmoor's commanding officer, Brigadier Munro, Mandela was permitted to create a roof garden, also reading voraciously and corresponding widely, now permitted 52 letters a year. He was appointed patron of the multi-racial United Democratic Front (UDF), founded to combat reforms implemented by South African President P.W. Botha. Botha's National Party government had permitted Coloured and Indian citizens to vote for their own parliaments which would have control over education, health, and housing, but black Africans were excluded from the system; like Mandela, the UDF saw this as an attempt to divide the anti-apartheid movement on racial lines.
Violence across the country escalated, with many fearing civil war. Under pressure from an international lobby, multinational banks stopped investing in South Africa, resulting in economic stagnation. Numerous banks and Thatcher asked Botha to release Mandela – then at the height of his international fame – to defuse the volatile situation. Although considering Mandela a dangerous "arch-Marxist”, in February 1985 Botha offered him a release from prison on condition that he '"unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon". Mandela spurned the offer, releasing a statement through his daughter Zindzi stating "What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people [ANC] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts."
In 1985 Mandela underwent surgery on an enlarged prostate gland, before being given new solitary quarters on the ground floor. He was met by "seven eminent persons", an international delegation sent to negotiate a settlement, but Botha's government refused to co-operate, in June calling a state of emergency and initiating a police crackdown on unrest. The anti-apartheid resistance fought back, with the ANC committing 231 attacks in 1986 and 235 in 1987. Utilising the army and right-wing paramilitaries to combat the resistance, the government secretly funded Zulu nationalist movement Inkatha to attack ANC members, furthering the violence. Mandela requested talks with Botha but was denied, instead secretly meeting with Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee in 1987, having a further 11 meetings over 3 years. Coetsee organised negotiations between Mandela and a team of four government figures starting in May 1988; the team agreed to the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of the ANC on the condition that they permanently renounce violence, break links with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule. Mandela rejected these conditions, insisting that the ANC would only end the armed struggle when the government renounced violence.
Mandela's 70th birthday in July 1988 attracted international attention, with the BBC organising the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute music gig at London's Wembley Stadium. Although presented globally as a heroic figure, he faced personal problems when ANC leaders informed him that Winnie had set herself up as head of a criminal gang, the "Mandela United Football Club", who had been responsible for torturing and killing opponents – including children – in Soweto. Though some encouraged him to divorce her, he decided to remain loyal until she was found guilty by trial.