The day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison

Twenty-five years ago today, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and into a South Africa on the verge of becoming a new, transformed nation. We recall the events of that historic day.

mandela-release-article “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,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography. (Image courtesy of Graeme Williams. To see more of Wlilliams’ photography, visit the Media Club South Africa image library and go to his website.)


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Sulaiman Philip

The world waited. And waited. The last images of the man they were waiting for were flickering black and white footage from a TV interview conducted in 1961 while he was on the run. Or news photographs from his trial in 1964. In both he looks confident, stout and healthy – obviously charismatic, and still a physically imposing man in his prime.

Twenty-seven years later, except for friends and family – and his guards – no one knew if he had aged well. So South Africa waited, glued to their televisions or among the estimated 50 000 people gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town to hear his first speech as a free man. Even the population who considered him a terrorist watched, knowing that South Africa was about to enter a new era. And Nelson Mandela was the man who would lead the way.

A week before, on 2 February 1990, then-president FW de Klerk had announced in Parliament that Mandela would be released, unconditionally, without setting a date. On the evening of 10 February De Klerk visited Mandela in the cottage in the gardens of Victor Verster Prison in Paarl to tell him he would be released the next day.

Madiba would write later, in Long Walk to Freedom: “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise. I thanked Mr De Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organisation could be prepared.”

In 1985 De Klerk’s predecessor PW Botha offered ANC political prisoners their freedom, on condition that they renounce violence. For the prisoners, led by Mandela, the choice was easy. As long as the apartheid government continued its violence – in townships and neighbouring states – the ANC could not renounce it.

It was a calculated decision by Mandela. No matter the moral justification for an armed struggle, the regime still held the military advantage. Mandela needed to show the ANC in exile that he was still the leader convicted in 1964.

Mandela also understood that the waves of strikes, boycotts and insurrection in the townships by the internal resistance, led by the United Democratic Front, would eventually force the government’s hand. When Mandela asked De Klerk for more time, he was showing solidarity with that struggle, refusing to have the terms of his release set by his jailer.

A puzzled De Klerk, after discussions with his advisers, went back to Mandela that same evening and held firm. Mandela had to leave prison the next day. Over a glass of whiskey Mandela relented. And so, on 11 February 1990, 25 years ago today, South Africa and the world waited. As the day dawned, with so little notice, Mandela’s his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other ANC heavyweights were still on the road rushing to Paarl.

Later that day, 12 hours after waking, Mandela walked out of prison, hand in hand with Winnie. His full head of hair was now grey and he walked stiffly, but unbent. Thinner than he was in the last pictures published of him, he looked less like than firebrand of the 1960s and more like the elder statesman he was about to become.

His first public words

The massive crowds gathered in Paarl and Cape Town to celebrate his release delayed Mandela’s convoy as they made their way to the Grand Parade. Finally, at 8 o’clock in the evening, he appeared on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall to speak to the crowd dancing in the square below him. He began to speak, but his first public words as a free man were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

He stopped and listened in the solemn way that would become familiar: chin down, mouth turned down at the corners. His wife’s spectacles perched on his nose, he started again to read to his speech.

“Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom,” said Mandela. “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people.

“Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognise that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our decisive mass action. We have waited too long for our freedom.”