The day that changed our lives

Unbanned 25 years ago

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had sent me to Harare, Zimbabwe, which is where I found myself on February?1 1990. Late at night, after a long day of meetings between internal and external exiles, we received a call from a journalist. He said he had an embargoed speech from president FW de Klerk, who would be delivering the speech the next day and announcing that the liberation movements would be unbanned.

We didn’t believe him.

Lo and behold, February?2 1990 dawned upon us and with it the momentous announcement that liberation movements had, in fact, been unbanned and the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, would be released from prison along with other political prisoners.

“Henceforth, everybody’s political points of view will be tested against their realism, their workability and their fairness. The time for negotiation has arrived,” said De Klerk.

Later that day the SABC arrived at our hotel in Harare to record our comments. Our delegation was led by the late Joe Mkhwanazi and the late Barney Desai, and included Ebe Desai, Matlakana Tefu and me.

Because of our cynicism the previous evening, the PAC decided to consult other leaders to look at the effect of the announcement. We were aware that international and internal pressure was part of the reason for the change of heart.

Over dinner that evening, Uncle Barney asked me whether he should come home. Zimbabwe was his second exile “home”.

After living in the United Kingdom and working as a barrister for many years, he moved to Zimbabwe so that he could be closer to South Africa. After escaping South Africa illegally on a boat so long ago, he decided that he would finally come home to Cape Town.

I flew back to Cape Town and waited in anticipation. He landed in Johannesburg on February?10 1990, where he was received by Dikgang Moseneke and Willie Seriti. They were tasked with ensuring that he was not arrested before he boarded his connecting flight to Cape Town.

In Cape Town the duty to ensure that he was not arrested was handed over to me. After a big fight with the police on duty at the arrivals gate, I forced my way through to find Uncle Barney waiting at the gate. His family was overwhelmed with emotion. It was the first time they had seen him in 30 years. Barney became the first PAC exile to come home.

The ANC and the PAC were both banned because of PAC activities during the struggle. It was Robert Sobukwe who led the anti-Pass Law march on March?21 1960 that resulted in the Sharpeville massacre.

Although liberation parties were banned, any political activity at that time was dangerous. If you were found to be a card-carrying member of one of the movements you could land a 10-year jail sentence. This was, of course, before February?2 1990.

There are two types of people who took part in the liberation struggle: those who fought before February?2 1990, and those who only joined afterwards, when it was both fashionable and easy to do so.

For those of us who fought during the struggle, we did so because we believed in the values and principles of freedom for the people of South Africa. Today, some of the late joiners grace the corridors of Parliament and live in ministerial luxury. These people diluted the liberation struggle, yet today they are found to be the most vociferous about our liberation. They did not lift a finger during the struggle.

I went on to represent the PAC in the negotiations at Kempton Park that led to the interim Constitution and, finally, our first democratic election on April?27 1994. I continue to feel honoured that I was party to the negotiations that led to our freedom.

The address by De Klerk on February?2 1990 led to the final nails in apartheid’s coffin.

I only wish that my fallen Ma-Afrika could have seen this and could also have been a part of this journey. I wish that I could recapture that feeling of opportunity. I have realised that the opportunity continues to present itself on a daily basis. We must never betray the values and principles of the struggle.

The following words spoken by former president De Klerk on February?2 1990 still ring true: “The hopes of millions of South Africans are centred around us. The future of Southern Africa depends on us. We dare not falter or fail.”

Patricia de Lille is the mayor of Cape Town and a member of the Democratic Alliance

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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