My husband and I decided we had to witness history first hand. Tsietsi Louw, a student from Gauteng who was studying at the University of Cape Town, wanted to be part of the experience, so the three of us set off to town very early to get pole position on the Grand Parade.
We took up our places just under the balcony of the mayor’s parlour in the City Hall — at the spot from which the iconic photo was taken of Cyril Ramaphosa holding the mic for Mandela as he made his famous first speech, alongside Walter Sisulu and others.
Jesse Jackson, the rather self-important United States senator, arrived for the great day as well. He saw it as a chance to have as many photo opportunities as he could with Mandela. He was clearly not welcome on the balcony podium and was relegated to a side window, where he leaned out as far as possible to be noticed.
What he did not notice, however, was that he was above a huge South African Communist Party banner, complete with hammer and sickle. That was not quite the photo opportunity he had in mind. — Helen Zille is leader of the Democratic Alliance and premier of Cape Town
Logistics of history
Hilda Ndude as told to Yolandi Groenewald
Hilda Ndude was in the middle of history — but was concentrating on logistics at the time. She is in the iconic photo of Mandela and Winnie punching the air in victory as the sun set behind them.
Ndude’s own face is set in grim determination.
She was in charge of ANC protocol when Mandela was released and had to organise the logistics of the day: cars, security, the ANC members who would form the centre of the welcoming party — and suits for some.
“We received word 24 hours before his release from the ruling regime that he was going to be released on the Sunday,” Ndude, who is now a Cope politician, said. “We were activists and activists can mobilise at a drop of a hat.
“We didn’t sleep. We just kept going, straight. We only went to bed at 3am that day and then we were up again at 5am.
“By the time the Mandela party arrived at the house in Bishopscourt, it was already late afternoon,” she said. Politics was first priority and the group did not even enjoy a first celebratory meal with Mandela that day. “We ate only late that night, in passing. We were too busy.”
Now she sees little of Mandela and has to battle with his office to get an appointment.
“He sent me a Christmas card, that last Christmas [he spent] in prison,” she said. “I still keep it.” — Yolandi Groenewald is the M&G‘s environment editor
I was 11 years old and bored. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was too old for the children’s programmes screened on the SAUK (Suid-Afrikaanse Uitsaaikorporasie) — that was before it became SABC in every language — and too young for an afternoon nap and reading Rapport.
So when my cousin and I were called by our mothers to “go for a drive”, we jumped at the opportunity. But when we drove straight through the Paarl Main Street and out the other side, we realised this wasn’t a regular ice-cream jaunt.
We finally arrived at our destination: Victor Verster prison. Then we were told that today this correctional facility would release its most famous inmate, perhaps the most famous prisoner in the world. We shrugged — hoping that this would happen before the ice-cream shop closed.
I could not understand why my neighbours and teachers were dancing and singing, sommerso there in the street. Later we lost interest and wandered over to the television cameras. They all had big CNN logos and spoke English — a distinctive characteristic in our Afrikaans community.
He came out three hours later than expected and waved to the crowd as if he knew them intimately. Before that, some hadn’t even been sure he existed. Without a word he was ushered into a big car and sped off in a convoy. The crowd continued to sing for a while longer, but then the 40°C heat got the better of them.
On the drive home my aunt bought us soft-serve ice-creams in celebration. My cousin and I felt this made the trip and the long wait worthwhile. — Mandy Rossouw is an M&G political reporter
After reading the Sunday Times and seeing that Madiba was going to be released that day we began to gather. I was confined to my house in Mthatha with a few friends and Transkei government officials.
Our excitement was frustrated by the delay in releasing Mandela. We were beginning to think that maybe Madiba did not want to come out, or that De Klerk had changed his mind. As I watched the live broadcast, the United Democratic Front looked like they were caught off guard by Madiba’s release. I was crossing fingers, worried about the security arrangements. Even when Madiba addressed the nation later in the day, I did not think he had adequate security.
He came out looking lean and old. There was a huge difference between the pictures published in the Sunday Times that morning and how he looked when he walked out of prison. — Bantu Holomisa was the leader of the Transkei military government and a commander of the Transkei Defence Force. He is now the leader of the United Democratic Movement and an MP
Smell of uncertainty
I was in grade three, or standard one as it was known in those days, and we were having a family braai at our lovely home on Joburg’s West Rand.
My mother’s flowers were in bloom and the branches of our fruit trees were hanging heavy with ripe apricots, plums and peaches. But the overwhelming smell in the air that day was not the braaivleis or fruit or freshly cut grass. It was the smell of uncertainty.
Uncertainty at what would happen to the “safe” world that allowed my two little sisters and me to receive a quality, public education. Uncertainty over job security, the future of our language, Afrikaans, and the red threat to the existence of our churches.
The threat of “the communists taking over our country” was big in the Afrikaner community. The names Joe Slovo and Chris Hani sent shivers down our collective spines.
Linked to this was the fear of a new world; one that allowed black kids to attend “our” schools and shopping malls to be open on Sundays.
One of the National Party’s biggest “successes” was to create a false sense of security under whites. As long as you stayed, played, learned, bought and braaied in your own neighbourhood, you were out of harm’s way.
Until that day the word “Mandela” meant all the things that scared Afrikaners about a black majority government. What a surprise when a friendly man and not a monster walked out of prison that day.
My parents’ best friends were visiting and we were packed like sardines in front of the Telefunken. I remember Uncle G saying nasty things about Madiba (he is the same guy who stocked up with bully beef, baked beans and toilet paper four years later).
My dad didn’t say much and mom made sure everyone’s glasses were full.
I didn’t quite know what to make of the moment, but realised something huge just happened. That night I thanked God that the sky didn’t fall. — Adriaan Basson is an M&G investigative reporter
Victory at last
I was in [military] camp in Uganda. Our propaganda department had been updating us so we knew about the planned release.
There was only one communal television that was watched once a week and a radio that was available only to the members of the propaganda department.
We played a soccer match as part of the celebrations, but made sure we finished before 4 o’clock. We didn’t have crackers, but when soldiers celebrate, they fire rifles.
We were singing and dancing. The community around us was surprised because they didn’t know what the firing and celebrations were all about. The mood in the camp was like, “we are free, we are going back home”.
But we were caught off guard on other things. The question was: how are we going to go back home? Do we still have families? Do we still have friends?
We were not clear about whether we were suspending the armed struggle and also what was going to happen to us. But on that day we knew that we had managed to win the struggle. — Kebby Maphatsoe was a firearms instructor for MK at the time of Mandela’s release. He is now national chair of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association
Saving the best …
George Bizos as told to Sello Alcock
Human rights lawyer George Bizos knew earlier than most when his longtime friend was to be released. “I was involved because Mandela wanted [Oliver] Tambo to know what was going on,” said Bizos by telephone this week. “Mr Mandela sent me to Lusaka to meet Oliver in February 1986.”
The release had its genesis in secret talks in a prison hospital between Mandela and then-justice minister Kobie Coetzee in 1985. Mandela’s comrades were “concerned” that his isolation and health should not compromise the broad liberation front’s negotiating position with the apartheid regime, Bizos said.
Mandela’s wish was to be the last political prisoner to be released by the apartheid state, he said. “[His release] came as no surprise to us — I had come back from America a day before the announcement. I didn’t go down to Cape Town because I had a trial, but watched it on television.”
Later Bizos and his old friend sat for hours under a tree at Mandela’s modest Vilakazi Road home in Soweto and planned the way forward. — Sello Alcock is an M&G criminal justice reporter