Mandela returns to prison for birthday fête

Nelson Mandela made a rare joint appearance with his former wife Winnie on Thursday at the unveiling of a huge bronze statue depicting the anti-apartheid hero’s first steps to freedom, raising his fist in celebration and flashing his world-famous smile.

Braving high winds and a downpour, Mandela was in good spirits at the hour-long ceremony held as part of his 90th birthday celebrations at the prison where he spent the last 14 months of his 27-year confinement.

”Nelson Mandela came to symbolise the courage of a generation,” said Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan. ”He stands as the representative of a generation of immortals.”

Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, walked out of Victor Verster prison on February 11 1990, into an adoring crowd of thousands. His release set off international celebrations and paved the way for him to be elected South Africa’s first black president.

Situated among vineyards about 70km outside Cape Town, the prison — now called Drakenstein — was far more comfortable than the harsh conditions of Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 years on a conviction of treason and sabotage against the white racist government. He refused government offers of earlier release, saying that the attached ”strings” were unacceptable.

Madikizela-Mandela was denied access to her husband for much of their married life. The couple divorced in 1996 and he remarried Mozambique’s former first lady Graça Machel on his 80th birthday in 1998.

At Thursday’s ceremony, the two women sat either side of Mandela, who was in an armchair with his knees covered by a cream blanket against the winter chill. They then linked arms and joined Mandela’s two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, to pull the protective plastic sheeting off the statue — the only one of Mandela in Cape Town.

Towering more than three metres high and stunningly lifelike, the statue depicts Mandela in the brown suit, complete with pocket handkerchief, that he wore on his first morning of freedom. The shoes mirror the heavy prison-issue ones.

”Nelson Mandela has always worn ugly shoes,” quipped Tokyo Sexwale, a former Robben Island inmate who is now a wealthy businessman and who commissioned the statue by South African artist Jean Doyle.

Sexwale said the statue had the left foot forward to symbolise Mandela’s ”politics of the left”. The fist was clenched not as a threat but in victory, and the smile defied his years of hardship. ”Look into his eyes and you see the eyes of a good man,” said Sexwale.

The choice of bronze reflected the color of Mandela’s skin. The stones around the base illustrated that Mandela was never alone, despite his prolonged solitary confinement. The base used slate from Robben Island and black granite — because most oppressed people were black — interspersed with white marble illustrating the racial harmony of the new South Africa.

It is inscribed with words from Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

”For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. … I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter.” – Sapa-AP

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