Nelson Mandela Foundation

Friday 2 February 1990 was a hot day in Cape Town, the summer temperature raised by thousands of political activists marching through the city demanding change.

Their presence demonstrated once again that the regime had failed to silence the voices of those calling for the end of apartheid.

Since the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960 and the jailing of political leaders, new organisations and new leaders had sprung up in their place.

Most of those thronging the streets of Cape Town in protest that day had experienced the brutality of apartheid. They would continue to struggle against the system of racial oppression and vowed that imprisonment, killings, torture and mass detention would not deter them.

By the time they reached the city centre, word had reached the leaders addressing them from a flatbed truck that a few streets away in Parliament President FW de Klerk had unbanned the ANC, PAC and other organisations.

Inside the austere National Assembly building, one sentence had changed everything: “The prohibition on the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and a number of subsidiary organisations is being rescinded.”

These words were uttered by De Klerk towards the end of his State of the Nation address at the opening of South Africa’s Parliament. A phrase so short that in the social media revolution to come, it would almost have fitted into a single tweet. Certainly that sentence changed the face of politics in South Africa.

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Part of a letter from Madiba requesting the release of other political prisoners. Click to download the letter

Then came another announcement from De Klerk, which cheered South Africans and the world even more: “I wish to put it plainly that the Government has taken a firm decision to release Mr Mandela unconditionally. I am serious about bringing this matter to finality without delay. The Government will take a decision soon on the date of his release. Unfortunately, a further short passage of time is unavoidable.”

The "short passage of time" turned out to be seven days.

Mandela, who was then in day 10 043 of his life imprisonment, had been involved in behind-the-scenes "talks-about-talks" with the apartheid government.

He had initiated contact in 1986 and had on several occasions met with Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee and other senior officials. He met President PW Botha on 5 July 1989 and his successor, De Klerk, on 13 December 1989. The meetings were not negotiations but discussions, which would ultimately lead to the multiparty talks that ended apartheid. Among Mandela’s demands to help create the conditions for such negotiations were: the unbanning of political organisations, the release of political prisoners and the end of the State of Emergency.

By then all seven of his fellow Rivonia Trialists who had been sentenced with him to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964 had been released from prison. Denis Goldberg, who had been held separately because he was white, was released in February 1985; Govan Mbeki in November 1987; and Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni in October 1989.

Mandela had pushed for their release as well as the freedom of others such as Matthews Meyiwa and Zakhele Mdlalose of KwaZulu-Natal and the PAC’s Jeff Masemola.