Nelson Mandela’s short walk to freedom remembered

Reading time 6 min.

Twenty years ago today, Olive Petersen was part of a 500,000 strong crowd that gathered in front of Cape Town’s City Hall to await Nelson Mandela’s first public appearance for 27 years. “It was a hot day and I had to stand for more than six hours with nothing to drink, but the only thing I cared about was laying my eyes on Mandela,” Petersen recalls. Mandela’s release, announced the previous week by the then President FW de Klerk, had taken the world by surprise and led to furious speculation and anticipation.

Stefan Simanowitz reports from Cape Town on the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison

No one knew what Mandela looked like let alone what he might say. Some African National Congress (ANC) activists feared that he might have ‘gone soft’ whilst much of the minority white population, reared on a daily diet of anti-ANC propaganda, feared Mandela would be an angry and vengeful figure. What emerged from Victor Verster prison that February morning was neither of these things. Instead, Mandela walked though the prison gates, statesman-like and dignified. And his first speech as a free man gave some indication that here was a man who might just be able to steer South Africa away from the brink of civil war and toward a peaceful, unified democracy.

Today, 11th February, Mandela’s release is being commemorated with an event at Groot Drakenstein prison (formerly Victor Verster). Mandela had been due to retrace his 500m final ‘walk to freedom’ but aged 91 and increasingly frail, it was decided that he will just attend an evening event in Parliament. Instead, the walk will be re-enacted by his former wife, Winnie Mandela who had walked hand-in-hand out of the prison with her then husband.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, received a lifetime prison sentence for sabotage in 1963 spending most of his jail term on Robben Island before being transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and later to Victor Verster prison in nearby Paarl. In 1985, he had been offered freedom if he denounced the armed struggle but declined the offer. Increasingly isolated and in a state of economic crisis it was becoming evident that the apartheid State could not survive and in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, FW De Klerk announced the dismantling of apartheid and the unconditional release of Mandela.

Jesse Jackson’s limousine

Mandela was expected to address the rally in Cape Town at lunchtime but his arrival was delayed by over four hours. The some of the crowd became restive and on the fringes there were clashes with police. Sue de Villiers, an ANC activist, recalls how American civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, arrived on the scene in a limousine which was immediately swamped by people who thought it was Mandela. “The vehicle got stuck in the crowd and dozens of people climbed on the roof and bonnet in order to get a better view. In the end Jackson had to get out of the car and was carried over the crowd on a sea of hands where he was then lifted onto the balcony. When people dispersed later the the limo was a flattened piece of metal.”

When Mandela finally appeared on the balcony of City Hall the crowd was in an ecstasy but as he took out his speech and borrowed Winnie’s glasses – his own having been left in prison – silence descended. He began by saluting all those who had made this moment possible before going on on to make it clear then that only way forward for South Africa would be elections. “Our march to freedom is irreversible,” he said. “We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters’ roll in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.” Whilst stressing the need for peace it was evident that he had not ‘gone soft’. He called on the international community to continue to impose sanctions on South Africa and stressed the continuing importance of the ANC’s military capacity. ”The factors which necessitated armed struggle still exist today,” he told the jubilant crowd.

Mbeki and Zuma

Mandela’s release heralded the start of a process that would eventually lead to a negotiated settlement and democratic elections in 1994. But it was also the start of a process of reconciliation and nation-building that is continuing to this day. Whilst the scars of apartheid may have faded South Africa is yet to fully overcome many of the divisions and contradictions left in its wake and for many, the New South Africa is not the paradise once dreamed of. One in four South African’s is unemployed and crime rates are among the highest in the world. Over a million people still live in shacks and over 5 million South Africans are infected with HIV and AIDS. There is also widespread disillusionment with the governing ANC resulting from numerous corruption scandals, failures in leadership and policy mistakes. Whilst the new President Jacob Zuma has attempted turn the page on Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, his promise to tackle corruption has been tainted by his own involvement in a bribery scandal surrounding a government arms deal and his new approach to dealing with the AIDS crisis has been somewhat undermined by revelations of his own high risk sexual practices.

Zuma, currently facing a storm of criticism following revelations that he had fathered his 20th child to a woman who was not to one of his three wives, has tried this week to invoke the vision of the former President. But Mandela’s magic does not always rub off easily on others and rather than bolstering Zuma, the celebrations have served highlight how far the country has slipped in terms of unity and moral leadership since that day in 1990.

…you made us free

Despite valid criticisms, South Africa’s transformation over the past 20 years has nevertheless been little short of miraculous. Mandela’s clarity of vision and ability to forgive enabled a fledging democracy to take root. The country has experienced 17 years of sustained economic growth which the global recession only managed to suspend for nine months. There has been a dramatic expansion in access to housing, electricity and water together with a burgeoning black middle class. South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world supported by an independent judiciary and a free press and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set the bench mark as a way for a population to come to terms with a traumatic past. Although things are far from perfect South Africa is a very different country to the one into which Mandela emerged twenty years ago. It is not yet a country fully at ease with itself, but it is the tensions and contradictions that give South Africa much of its unique and distinctive energy.

Susan Rabkin, special adviser to the Minister of Defense, believes that the freeing of Mandela and the ultimate victory of the ANC resulted from a fortuitous convergence of a number of historical and political factors not least the presence of some remarkable leaders. “Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu all had such integrity that the ANC was lifted to great heights under their leadership” she recalls. Cyril Ramaphosa, who as an ANC leader had met Mandela on his release, told him last week “as you became free, you made us free.” But the significance of his release was felt far beyond South Africa’s borders. In a world that was undergoing an unprecedented period of transformation and uncertainty, Mandela’s release gave a renewed sense of hope and optimism. As Breyten Bretenbach the Afrikaans dissident writer wrote at the time: “Perhaps there is now a little more sense to our dark passage on Earth.”

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Stefan Simanowitz
A London-based writer, broadcaster and journalist, Stefan Simanowitz writes for publications in the UK and around the world including the: Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Washington Times, Global Post, Huffington Post, New Statesman, In These Times, New Internationalist, Prospect, Lancet,, Contemporary Review, Mail & Guardian. He has a background in policy, political strategy and international human rights law and has worked for the European Commission, Liberty and the ANC during South Africa’s first democratic election campaign. He has reported from mass graves in Somaliland and Indonesia, prisons in Cameroon and South Africa, refugee camps in the Sahara desert and he writes on all aspects of global politics. He also has an interest in culture and travel, writing reviews on music, literature, film and theatre and taking photographs to accompany his reviews and reportage.
Support Follow Afrik-News on Google News