I wasn’t yet a teenager when it happened, but I still remember the TV images as if they I just saw them last week. Twenty years ago, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped through the gate of Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town and strode into a new era of history. His steps were slow and faulty at first, but what can you expect from a man who had spent nearly three decades in some of South Africa’s most vicious prisons?
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born to an aristocratic family in a village in the Transkei on July 18, 1918. As a young law student and member of the African National Conference, Mandela followed in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps and pursued a peaceful campaign of resistance to the South African Apartheid regime. He was first arrested for treason in 1956, and although he and his co-defendants were eventually set free, the experience pushed him onto an increasingly militant path. He became head of the ANC’s armed wing, the “Spear of the Nation,” which carried out a series of sabotage acts against the Pretoria regime while endeavoring not to harm individuals. (The US State Department finally took Mandela off its terrorist list in 2008.) He was arrested in 1962 with CIA assistance, tried, and – narrowly avoiding the death penalty – sentenced to five years in prison. This term ultimately grew to twenty-seven, which he spent on Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. During his 1962 trial, Mandela made the following statement:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Conditions on Robben Island were particularly brutal. Mandela was held in solitary confinement and put to hard labor in a quarry. He was permitted only one visitor and one letter every six months. According to British journalist Paul Vallely, every Thursday Mandela “and a group of other black prisoners would be taken outside and told to dig a trench six feet deep. When it was complete, they were told to get down into it, whereupon their white warders would urinate on them. Then they were told to fill in the trench and go back to their solitary cells.”
Nelson Mandela revisited Robben Island in 1994
In 1980, ANC activist Oliver Tambo launched the global “Free Nelson Mandela!” campaign, making the prisoner a household name and the symbol of resistance to oppression. Mandela was far more influential in prison than he ever had been in freedom, and the South African government decided to act. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela if he would agree to abandon the armed struggle first. Mandela famously replied: “Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” The international pressure mounted. A massive concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in honor of his seventieth birthday turned into a public relations fiasco for Botha’s government.
On February 2, 1989, South Africa’s new president, F.W. de Klerk, announced that Mandela would be released within a matter of days. The preceding months had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of dictatorial regimes all across Europe. Why shouldn’t Apartheid finally land on the dung heap of history as well? And that is why the world’s TVs were tuned to the news from South Africa on February 11. What would Mandela say after twenty-seven years of near total silence? And what would happen next in South Africa?
When Mandela wobbled out into view of the cameras, anything seemed possible. It was all up to him now, and he found precisely the right words:
I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, 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. … Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters’ role in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.
Three years later, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. A year after that, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. His administration had its troubles, but to understand Mandela’s achievement in transforming personal suffering into national reconciliation, one need look no further than the experience of South Africa’s neighbour, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
In an interview with British journalist Anthony Sampson in 1994, the newly-elected president stated: “Men of peace must not think about retribution or recriminations. Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
May we all have such courage. Tonight, Mandela, now aged ninety-one, will stand before his nation once more during a special “State of the Union” address to be delivered by President Jacob Zuma. So let us join the rest of the world in shouting out: “Happy anniversary, Madiba!”