“To so many of us, Nelson Mandela was more than just a man – he was a symbol of the struggle for justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa and around the globe. His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress.” – former US President Barack Obama
Twenty-seven years ago, on 10 February 1990, millions of South Africans and others across the globe waited with bated breath as the release of Nelson Mandela was announced. Mandela had, over the course of 27 years, become one of the most celebrated political prisoners in history. His release was a victory for the thousands of people who had sacrificed so much in the fight against apartheid – many of whom had made the ultimate sacrifice. For those who were fortunate enough to witness the 11 February release of Mandela, the chaos and euphoria that greeted it did not come as a shock.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the country was ready for his release. Even after the official announcement by former President FW de Klerk that Mandela would be released, doubts still lingered that, after decades of waiting, the country would see his release.
As the day dawned, none of us could have imagined the significance it would carry. For those 27 years, only a privileged few in our country had an idea of how he looked or how he sounded; Madiba had become a mythologised figure in the public consciousness. In the heat of the South African sun, a beaming Mandela, in a dark suit, emerged from Victor Verster Prison holding hands with Winnie Mandela, both raising triumphant clenched-fist salutes, an iconic image in our history.
With the advantage of hindsight, we are able to see clearly how those few minutes after his release demonstrated what kind of a person he was and, more importantly, what kind of President and world statesman he would be. He took time to greet those people who had been waiting outside the gates of the prison for almost 11 hours. His convoy made continuous stops on his route to the Grand Parade, where he was to deliver an address, so that he could get out and speak to ordinary people. This behaviour became a trademark of his life and earned him the respect of ordinary people and leaders across the world.
It is important to note that prior to his release, the country was in the midst of a struggle for equality that was characterised by violence, mass demonstrations, and the continuous arrests and detentions of activists. There were numerous expectations of his first speech on this day. For many of the more than 60 000 who endured the heat for hours at the Grand Parade, there was hope that he would call for a final onslaught against the apartheid regime. There were also those who watched with an anxious hope that he would call for peace and an end to the violence and demonstrations. True to his character, he not only struck a conciliatory tone, but was also clear that the struggle was far from over.
He was quick to dispel the myth that he was a saint, and stuck to his belief that he was one among many who sacrificed their lives in the quest to see South Africans living in a free, non-racial and non-sexist country. He stayed true to his words at the Rivonia Trial that he was prepared to die in the struggle against white and black domination. That day, 11 February, thus set a tone of behaviour in managing a country in turmoil.
It was this tone, of balancing both justice and reconciliation, that underpinned the negotiation process towards democracy. Mandela was committed to ensuring that despite the challenges and forces determined to see the negotiation process fail, the country should never escalate to a situation of civil war and anarchy. Through his charisma and leadership, the country negotiated this difficult period – a period that witnessed the murder of Chris Hani, which could have destabilised the country to the point of war. His steady hand and ability to bring people together ensured that the country finally got to hold its first democratic elections in 1994.
We are faced with a leadership deficit in our country that makes most of us yearn for the kind of stable leadership Mandela brought. He remains a guiding beacon of how we should respond, by basing policy and actions on the protection of human rights and the promotion of human dignity. His legacy is one in which negotiation and dialogue became the norm, rather than enforcing one’s own position through violence or threat of violence. He also focused on the promotion of unity and tolerance in achieving progressive change. Yet foremost, Mandela was guided by an unflinching commitment to morality and integrity.
Twenty-seven years ago, we witnessed not only the release of a man, but the creation of a symbol that stands for social justice. We owe it to Mandela to protect this legacy and be guided by our own consciences, rather than by material gain. After 27 years and to celebrate the legacy of Mandela, we must find the Madiba within all of us and work towards building a humane, equitable and just society.