Nelson Mandela Foundation

State  Presidents  Minute

Thirty-three years ago today, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and what a profoundly different society he was released into. When Nelson Mandela was released, he immediately committed the remainder of his life to build the country he had spent decades fighting for. 

As we remember this historic moment, the challenge is to contrast the country Madiba wanted to build and the country we have become. This week’s State of the Nation Address made it clear that we have deferred Madiba’s dream.

A third of our people have no work, and an energy crisis has ruined many of those that had created their own work our leaders have created. We live in fear of each other, of crime, of assault and all kinds of violence. The protest has not found a reason to end. 

Let us look back at this moment 33 years later. Let us look back on it and remember not only the stakes and the sacrifices but also the country that we earned. The country we promised one another in the Constitution Nelson Mandela went on to sign six years after leaving prison. If nothing at all, this proves that justice is not only possible in the most obscure of situations but necessary.

Here is a look back to a press release in celebration of this memorable day in South Africa’s democratic history:

Media Release: 5 February 2015

Suddenly it was real.

Nelson Mandela would finally be freed.

On Saturday 10 February 1990 the apartheid regime used all the means at its disposal to announce that President FW de Klerk would hold a press conference that afternoon.

State  Presidents  Minute

State President’s Minute (courtesy Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Many journalists had gathered at the then DF Malan Airport in Cape Town for the arrival of yet another VIP since De Klerk’s announcement that Mandela would soon be released.

Their unexpected but thrilling clue came through an announcement over the airport public address system summoning them to the information desk. There, the message they received confirmed what they had been hoping for: The President would be holding a press conference that afternoon at a government building it called ‘HF Verwoerd’.

Packed into the cinema seats, crouching in the front row and standing the aisles they filmed, photographed and noted De Klerk’s every word, as the press conference was broadcast live.

“Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sorry to have disrupted your Saturday afternoon,” he began.

“In pursuance of my opening address to Parliament, I am now in a position to announce that Mr Mandela will be released at the Victor Verster Prison on Sunday the 11th of February at about 3 pm.”

He told how he and Mandela had met in Cape Town the previous evening when he informed him of his release. What his opening statement did not say is that he had planned for Mandela not to return to Victor Verster Prison. He was to be flown to Johannesburg and released in Soweto.

Mandela objected and asked for his release to be postponed for “seven days” to give activists time to prepare. In addition he wanted to walk out from the gates of Victor Verster where he had been held for the previous 14 months. He felt strongly that the Western Cape had been his home for most of the last 27-and-a-half years and it was into that region that he wanted to take his first steps of freedom.

After his release Mandela recounted parts of the six-hour meeting with De Klerk and how the final decision was reached:

“He said to me, that ‘we will fly you to Johannesburg and we will keep you elsewhere … on Sunday afternoon we will hand you over to your people’. I said ‘no, that’s not fair because you are not giving our people enough time to see me, I mean to prepare for my release. Give me seven days. Let them prepare’. The government wouldn’t agree to that.”

De Klerk, who met Mandela with Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee, and Constitutional Development Minister, Gerrit Viljoen, adjourned the meeting twice. Recalling that meeting years late Mandela said he told De Klerk: “’You have no right to say I should be taken to Johannesburg. I want to be released here’. And so eventually they agreed to release me at the gate of Victor Verster. But they refused to postpone the release.”

De Klerk, who spent some time answering questions from the eager media contingent on 10 February, said the meeting was “civil” and took place “in good spirit”. He described Mandela as “an elderly man; he’s a dignified man and he is an interesting man.”

By dusk the next day the world would see Mandela himself, hear him speak and learn of his own views on the struggle against apartheid and South Africa’s future. It would be the end of decades of imagining this man who had been painted by successive apartheid governments as a ‘terrorist’.