Eight days after FW de Klerk made his pathbreaking speech of February 2 1990, Trevor Manuel got a message from the office of General Johan Willemse, the commissioner of prisons. So did Dullah Omar. So did Bulelani Ngcuka. They passed it on to Saki Macozoma, a young South African Council of Churches activist who was visiting the Western Cape.
Could they be at the HF Verwoerd Building in the parliamentary complex — the Cape Town offices of the Cabinet — at 2.30 pm?
All of them were members of the Mandela Reception Committee. The committee had been set up countrywide to receive Nelson Mandela from jail. It grew directly out of the prescience of several months before, when the internal resistance movement, battered by the emergency, backed their exiled comrades by preparing their own embittered constituency for negotiations with the apartheid regime.
“There was a need for political preparedness” — to use Sidney Mufamadi’s phrase. Then a trade unionist and an underground ANC operative, Mufamadi was the convener of an anti-apartheid conference originally planned for September 1989. He was banned, as was the conference. Manuel was a leader in the then-banned United Democratic Front (UDF) and Ngcuka was an attorney.
Three months later Mufamadi convened the same conference, only this time called the “Conference for a Democratic Future”. About 4000 people attended. Walter Sisulu, released after 26 years in jail, gave the keynote address, endorsing negotiations as a way forward. But the real question, as Mufamadi told me recently, was: “How ready were we to receive Mandela?”
By then the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), a loose coalition of the UDF and the union movement, had re-established itself throughout the country after years of repression. Its task now was to persuade its recalcitrant constituency that negotiations with the apartheid regime were viable.
In some ways this task was made easier by the vociferous opposition of the black consciousness groupings to negotiations.
By creating another nemesis, the MDM leadership hoped to rally its own constituency. In a pre-conference caucus Manuel offered to play the role of “bad cop”. When Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) rejected talk of negotiations, Manuel retorted: “We cannot be held back by people who were not in the trenches with us.”
“The house came down,” he recalled. The Azapo delegation walked out and the resolution on negotiations was passed.
De Klerk, the new president of the country, faced the same challenge with his constituency. At the time the Conference for a Democratic Future took place in December, he was meeting his Cabinet in a bosberaad in a private game reserve near Ellisras, in the northwest of the country. But he spent most of that summer alone, contemplating his speech, and told only his closest few advisers the main points.
As De Klerk began speaking on February 2, it was clear that the tone was different from any previous government speech. “The season for violence is over. The time for reconstruction and reconciliation has arrived.”
And then he did what the world waited for: he lifted the ban on the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Pan Africanist Congress; even on Umkhonto weSizwe. And he announced a “firm decision to release Nelson Mandela unconditionally”.
It was ironic then that the careful preparedness on both sides nearly collapsed on the day Nelson Mandela was released.
When Manuel and his comrades arrived at the HF Verwoerd building on the afternoon of February 10, Willemse told them that De Klerk was announcing, right then, in the room next door, that Mandela would be released the next day. “We must prepare to receive him.”
That afternoon Manuel and the other UDF leaders drove to Victor Verster to meet Mandela. They asked UDF activists to plan a rally to welcome Mandela. Among them was Willie Hofmeyr, who had recently emerged from a long spell in detention. Today he is a leading law enforcement agent.
“By that time,” recalled Hofmeyr, “we were fairly experienced rally-putters-togethers because we’d been doing it through most of the emergency, but this was a real last-minute thing.”
At 3am on the Sunday morning Hofmeyr was on the phone to cardboard manufacturers to persuade them to open because Allies, the movement’s printers in Athlone, had run out.
The rally was advertised for 3pm, the time Mandela was due to walk out of jail — he’d opted to walk rather than be driven out. The roads to the city centre were already thick with traffic by 11am. “That’s the first time I realised we may be in trouble,” said Hofmeyr.
To make matters worse, the Johannesburg contingent assigned to fetch Mandela from jail was late. Cyril Ramaphosa, then the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and a member of the Reception Committee, was in hospital with pneumonia at the time.
“I was not discharged by a doctor. I just pulled out the drips and told them that I’m out of here!”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had kept civil resistance alive when the political leaders were jailed during the state of emergency, was in Soweto baptising his first-born grandson. He missed a seat on a chartered flight and cadged a lift with a BBC crew instead.
Mandela’s wife, Winnie, who had rocked the MDM after she was implicated in a sordid case involving the kidnapping and assault of children, refused to get on the same plane as Murphy Morobe. Morobe, publicity secretary of the MDM since Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota’s imprisonment the year before, had had the unenviable task of publicly distancing the MDM from her actions.
So they chartered two planes instead of one. But they were propeller planes, not jets. “What did we know about planes?” said Ramaphosa, who became one of the wealthiest black businessmen in the country. “What we knew about planes was as dangerous as what we knew about RPG launchers! What did we know?”
So the Johannesburg contingent boarded the “slowest planes in the world” that took four, not two hours, to reach Cape Town. “One would have thought that when one was going to receive Mandela you would have gone in a Concorde!” said Ramaphosa.
Meanwhile on the Parade a crowd of at least 50000 gathered soon after midday. It was a sweltering day. Tempers frayed. People wilted. Some collapsed. And soon a group known in the townships as “com-tsotsis” — gangsters who used political protest as a cover for thuggery — took over. They looted a liquor store and several shops in a nearby shopping mall. Riot police at the corners of the crowd opened fire. Crack! Crack! Nobody knew whether it was ammunition, rubber bullets or tear gas.
MDM marshals battled valiantly to maintain order. One of the problems, said Hofmeyr afterwards, was that they had not managed to get walkie-talkies.
“Our marshals were just overcome and we were not used to having to deal with people who would come in with knives and fists to get to the front of the crowd.”
It was now well past 3pm. Still Mandela didn’t arrive. An angry murmur went through the swelling crowd that this was all a trick by De Klerk to confuse the oppressed masses.
At 4.15pm Nelson Mandela finally walked out of Victor Verster Prison, an hour-and-a-quarter behind schedule, 27 years after he was first arrested at a roadblock outside Pietermaritzburg. He was both triumphant and dazzled by the attention, especially by the aptly named rifle-mikes that camera crews pushed towards him.
“Every time I moved away, they would come closer,” he told me shortly before his 80th birthday.
Manuel helped him pack his belongings into one of the waiting vehicles, and got into a car behind his. Then they drove the back roads to Cape Town.
Hofmeyr heard over the traffic cops’ radios that Mandela’s convoy was on its way, but now there was mayhem outside the City Hall. He rushed to the freeway turnoff to warn them not to come into the city centre. His ripped T-shirt hung in strips around his emaciated figure — he had been on a prolonged hunger strike while in detention.
“We’d all been involved in physical combat for hours!”
Manuel spotted him at the turnoff. “He still hadn’t recovered from his hunger strike, and he said, ‘Comrades stop! They’re killing people in the city.” So Manuel drove ahead to the Civic Centre on the other side of the freeway from the City Hall and Grand Parade. He told the security guards there that in a few minutes a convoy would arrive and they should let them in.
Then he and three other leaders, Ramaphosa, Valli Moosa and Jay Naidoo, went to the City Hall to scout for a safe route for Mandela. They found a way in but when they returned to the Civic Centre, they discovered, to their horror, that the car carrying Mandela had disappeared. A traffic cop had told them they were in the wrong venue and redirected them to the City Hall.
A newspaper reported afterwards that Mandela’s cavalcade had “roared” into the city just after 5.20pm. “A huge crowd ran wildly alongside his car as it wound through the city, beating on the windows and chanting. A group of women jostled and pushed, desperate to see their leader.
“They wept and laughed simultaneously. The press of the crowd slowed the motorcade to jogging pace and Mandela, in the back seat with his wife Winnie, looked out at the mad crush of faces. He was impassive, with his fist raised stiffly in salute.”
Mandela may have looked impassive but his driver panicked, edged out of the crowd and took the first turn out of town. He sped along the freeway to the southern suburbs, ending up in Rosebank, a suburb near the University of Cape Town. They pulled up outside a house and knocked on the door.
A woman who had been watching the release on TV looked out in astonishment. The man she had just seen walking out of jail was now here outside her house. Her name was Vanessa Watson. Coincidentally, she happened to be an urban planning researcher, who had written extensively on the parlous state of black housing in the Cape, information that had been used by Manuel’s civic organisation in the early 1980s. Instead of watching the rest of the chaos on the Grand Parade on TV, she chatted to the freed leader while he played with her newborn twins.
The diversion may have given Mandela’s minders breathing space, but it didn’t help the organisers. The sun dimmed and still there was no sign of their leader. The crowd was restive, bordering on wild.
When Mandela’s car had disappeared, Manuel was beside himself. “How could we lose Madiba on the day of his release? How would you write that thing in history?”
About 6pm a traffic cop near the City Hall beckoned Manuel and said there was “someone who wanted to talk to him” on his two-way radio. It was a colonel in the security police whom Manuel knew from his frequent detentions.
He said: “Trevor, you must go fetch Mandela. If you don’t bring him here the city will burn down and hundreds of people are going to be killed. Go fetch him!”
By this time, Mandela was having tea in Rondebosch East with the family of a local Cape Town activist. The colonel directed Manuel, who raced to fetch him. This time they got him into the City Hall through its back entrance. With the late summer evening fading to darkness, Mandela addressed the crowd on the Parade and millions more around the world.
“I stand here before you today not as a prophet but as a humble servant of the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
The following day, after nearly 48 hours without sleep, Manuel collapsed into bed at around midnight after the rally only to be awoken at 4am by a phone call from Mandela. “Trevor, where are my weights?” asked the old man.
They had been packed into one of the vehicles that had left the prison the day before. Manuel tracked them down, before driving Mandela to the airport that afternoon to see him off on his homeward journey to Johannesburg.
“Goodbye Comrade Chief,” he said. He hugged him and handed over his weights.
Pippa Green is professor of journalism at the University of Pretoria and the author of Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel. This is an updated and adapted extract from the book