Editor's note: Although most blacks in South Africa have never heard his voice, never read his statements, never seen his picture, Nelson Mandela has become a legendary figure to them in their struggle for political rights. Now he is an increasingly troublesome problem for the government. Here is a report on Mandela by a longtime Associated Press correspondent in South Africa.

Through 26 years behind bars in South African jails, Nelson Mandela has grown into a mythic symbol of black resistance to apartheid.

Now 70 and stricken with tuberculosis, the international stature of the leader of the African National Congress is at a peak. He is locked in a test of wills with President P.W. Botha that will have a profound impact on their country's future.

Since Mandela was hospitalized Aug. 12, Botha has come under unprecedented pressure, here and abroad, to free the man many believe would be president if black South Africans could vote.

More than ever before, Botha has indicated he is ready to oblige, saying he wants to "act in a humane way" toward a prisoner "in a special category of his own."

But commentators across the political spectrum say Botha has become as much a prisoner as Mandela, caught in a dilemma with no easy escape.

Keeping Mandela in jail will intensify the international protests and pose the risk of a furious response by blacks if their most esteemed leader dies behind bars.

Freeing an unrepentant Mandela will outrage right-wing whites and could revive militant black opposition activity that has been heavily suppressed under a 26-month-old state of emergency.

These conflicting pressures leave Botha in a bind. Government officials say he is unlikely to choose the bolder option of release without some sort of concession from Mandela, such as tacit acceptance of the government's demand that he renounce the use of violence.

Mandela's supporters believe he will accept nothing short of unconditional freedom. They recall 1986, when Mandela said he would not renounce violence until the government lifted its ban on the African National Congress, scrapped the segregation laws of apartheid, and agreed to negotiate the granting of political rights to the nation's 26 million black majority.

"There is no violence worse than apartheid," wrote black newspaper editor Khulu Sibiya. "If one were to weigh the violence of apartheid and that for which Mr. Mandela was imprisoned, that of Mr. Mandela is like a Sunday school picnic."

Calls for Mandela's release are coming not only from blacks and white liberals, but also from some conservative whites. The pro-government Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld incurred Botha's wrath this month for twice urging that Mandela be freed.

Some analysts argue that the exiled leadership of the ANC, the major guerrilla group fighting the white-ruled government, benefits more with Mandela behind bars than if he were free.

"As long as he is in jail, he cannot make a mistake. And yet he might, once free, especially because people have high expectations from him," said Chris Maritz, a political science professor at the University of Potchefstroom.

Mike Hough, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at University of Pretoria, suggested that some ANC leaders might prefer that Mandela die in jail. This would give the ANC a martyr and avoid a possible ideological split in the guerrilla organization if a freed Mandela diverged in any way from current ANC policy.

There is no firm indication that such a split would occur. But Mandela is on record as opposing guerrilla attacks on civilian targets, while some of the younger generation of ANC officials have advocated such attacks as a way of demoralizing whites.

Mandela, in his few publicly reported statements while in prison, has never distanced himself from the ANC or apologized for masterminding an anti-government sabotage campaign _ the crime for which he received a life sentence.

"If white leaders do not act in good faith toward us, if they will not meet with us to discuss political equality . . . then there really is no alternative other than violence," he told Samuel Dash, an American law professor, in 1985.

Dash, one of the few foreigners to meet Mandela in prison, wrote of the encounter: "Throughout our meeting, I felt that I was in the presence not of a guerrilla fighter or radical ideologue, but of a head of state."

Doctors say the prognosis for Mandela's complete recovery from tuberculosis is good, and government officials have suggested that he might be moved to a private clinic while he recuperates.

Under this scenario, he would be allowed to see an increased flow of visitors, and the government would decide after several months whether to free him or return him to prison.

Such a plan is depicted as a means of gradually demystifying Mandela, who is a living legend to many blacks.

His name is scrawled on countless township walls and chanted at anti-apartheid gatherings, even though few South Africans have seen a photograph of him and only a handful have heard his voice. It is illegal to quote or publish photos of prisoners inside South Africa.

Abroad, he has become probably the most famous prisoner in the world, the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, the focus of repeated campaigns and appeals seeking his release.

Many prominent black moderates, including those who condemn the ANC's use of violence, refuse to negotiate with the government unless Mandela is freed.

If he died in prison, said Dr. Nthatho Motlana, a veteran activist and former ANC member, many blacks would reach "an easy and reasonable conclusion that the system had killed Mandela."