Twenty years ago today, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was released from prison. Celebrations at the former Victor Verster Prison have been going on all day, but Mandela himself is not present.
Media here in South Africa are concentrating on events at the prison where Mandela was held under conditions of effective house arrest in the last period of his incarceration.
The prison, renamed the Groot Drakenstein Prison, hosted a breakfast of former and current members of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
According to Times Live, former political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, Secretary General of the nationally powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi as well as ANC veteran politician Cyril Ramaphosa attended the breakfast at the prison in Paarl, north of Cape Town.
Neither Mandela, nor his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, attended.
Ramaphosa, who had left hospital to take part, described his memories of the day Mandela was released:
If anybody tells you that Mandela shows emotion, they would be lying to you. He was as cool as a cucumber. He was calm and collected and we were anxious, our nerves were taut.
Referring to Mandela’s wife at the time, he said:
Winnie wanted him to come straight home to Johannesburg, to Orlando (in Soweto), and we wanted our icon to make a speech (in Cape Town). Mandela told Winnie that he would go to the rally.
Summing up what Mandela did for the country, Ramaphosa said:
Today we celebrate a life lived in service of our people. And we must reflect on the dedication he gave and we must learn from his life.
The Daily Dispatch newspaper quoted opposition members’ memories of the day. New opposition party Congress of the People (COPE)’s head of policy, Smuts Ngonyama was in charge of the ANC’s policy in a region in what is now the Eastern Cape Province. Referring to the former ”Bantustans,” he said:
It was a very big moment, especially for this region, which was a very revolutionary region fighting for an end of the homelands. We held a big rally to welcome him at Bhisho Stadium, which was attended by everyone from the greater Border region.
Main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s Eastern Cape leader, Athol Trollip recalled a private meeting he had with Mandela just after his release:
I will never forget the moment. He came with his hands stretched out towards me and said ‘I am Nelson Mandela.’
The United Democratic Movement (UDM)’s provincial legislature member, Max Mhlati, said he was glued to his TV set in what was the Transkei. Mhlati said:
In those days we lived under serious oppression and were under the impression that we would never live to see a better days.
Mandela’s release followed the Collapse of Communism, which left the ANC without its political backers on the one hand, and also discredited the hardliners in the then-ruling white National Party. As a result, Frederik (”F.W.”) De Klerk came to power and moderates on both sides gained the upper hand.
De Klerk unbanned previously illegal political parties and soon after released Nelson Mandela. This was followed by the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) I and II talks which paved the way for a democratic constitution and the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.