Nelson Mandela’s Walk to Freedom Remembered

Nelson Mandela, 1937

Twenty years ago, Janey Halim was part of the ANC welcome committee gathered outside Victor Verster Prison, waiting to greet Nelson Mandela as he emerged after 27 years of confinement. “It was a beautiful morning and we all just stood there with our eyes focused on the metal gate,” she recalls. “Then the gates opened and Nelson and Winnie walked towards us. Other people were cheering but I just cried and cried.” Two decades later, Ms Halim, known to most people as Auntie Janey, decided not to attend the commemorative event at the prison marking the anniversary of Mandela’s release because she feels let down by the African National Congress (ANC).

Two decades later, Halim, known by most people as Auntie Janey, decided not to attend the commemorative event at the prison marking the anniversary of Mandela’s release because she feels let down by the African National Congress (ANC). “There is so much greed, corruption and incompetence in the ANC nowadays” she says. “I feel that my years of struggle have gone down the drain.”

Although by no means representative, Auntie Janie’s sentiments reflect a widespread sense of disillusion among many people at the perceived slowness of change in South Africa. However, while acknowledging the criticisms, ANC stalwarts such as Mac Maharaj point out that South Africa’s transformation has been remarkable. “In 16 years South Africa has achieved far more that other comparable post-independent countries such as India or Nigeria in the same time period,” he argues.

Xoliswa Khoza, who remembers watching Mandela’s release on television aged 16, agrees. “The government has made mistakes, sure, but this country has improved almost beyond recognition,” she says. “For blacks, life now is so much better than under apartheid and my white friends talk about how the fear under which they used to live has gone.” Not everyone agrees. Tanya Rodighiro complains that “South Africa is going to become another Zimbabwe. The country is being ruined, but I suppose it’s the only country we’ve got.”

Mandela’s release heralded the start of a process that would eventually lead to a negotiated settlement and democratic elections in 1994. But it was also the start of a process of reconciliation and nation-building that is continuing to this day. While the scars of apartheid may have faded, South Africa is yet to fully overcome many of the divisions and contradictions left in its wake and for many, the New South Africa is not the paradise once dreamed of. One in four South Africans are unemployed and crime rates are among the highest in the world. Over a million people still live in shacks and over 5 million South Africans are infected with HIV and AIDS.

The numerous corruption scandals, failures in leadership and policy mistakes have also had a damaging toll on the once untarnished reputation of the ANC both nationally and internationally. While the new President Jacob Zuma has attempted turn the page on Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, his promise to tackle corruption has been tainted by his own involvement in a bribery scandal surrounding a government arms deal and his new approach to dealing with the AIDS crisis has been somewhat undermined by revelations of his own high risk sexual practices.

Zuma, currently facing a storm of criticism following revelations that he had fathered a child – his 20th – to a woman who was not to one of his three wives, tried last week to invoke the vision of the former President. But Mandela’s magic does not always rub off easily on others and rather than bolstering Zuma, the celebrations have served highlight how far the country has slipped in terms of unity and moral leadership since that heady day in 1990.

The release of Nelson Mandela on February 11th 1990, announced the previous week by the then President FW de Klerk, had taken the world by surprise and led to furious speculation and anticipation. No one knew what Mandela looked like let alone what he might say. Some ANC activists feared that he might have ‘gone soft’ while much of the minority white population, reared on a daily diet of anti-ANC propaganda, feared Mandela would be an angry and vengeful figure. What emerged from Victor Verster prison that February morning was neither of these things. Instead, Mandela walked though the prison gates, statesman-like and dignified and his first speech as a free man gave some indication that here was a man who might just be able to steer South Africa away from the brink of civil war and toward a peaceful, unified democracy.

Sentenced to life in 1963 for sabotage, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spent most of his jail term on Robben Island before being transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and later to Victor Verster prison in nearby Paarl. In 1985, he had been offered freedom if he denounced the armed struggle but declined the offer. Increasingly isolated and in a state of economic crisis, it was becoming evident that the apartheid state could not survive and in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, FW De Klerk announced the dismantling of apartheid and the unconditional release of Mandela.

Despite valid criticisms, South Africa’s transformation over the past 20 years has nevertheless been little short of miraculous. Mandela’s clarity of vision and ability to forgive enabled a fledging democracy to take root. The country has experienced 17 years of sustained economic growth which the global recession only managed to suspend for nine months. There has been a dramatic expansion in access to housing, electricity and water together with a burgeoning black middle class. South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world supported by an independent judiciary and a free press and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set the bench mark as a way for a population to come to terms with a traumatic past. Although things are far from perfect South Africa is a very different country to the one into which Mandela emerged twenty years ago. It is not yet a country fully at ease with itself, but it is the tensions and contradictions that give South Africa much of its unique and distinctive energy.

Susan Rabkin, special adviser to the Minister of Defense, believes that the freeing of Mandela and the ultimate victory of the ANC resulted from a fortuitous convergence of a number of historical and political factors not least the presence of some remarkable leaders. “Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu all had such integrity that the ANC was lifted to great heights under their leadership” she recalls.

Cyril Ramaphosa, who as an ANC leader had met Mandela on his release, told the crowd outside the prison gates recently “as Mandela walked through these gates twenty years ago, we were also being set free.” But the significance of his release was felt far beyond South Africa’s borders. In a world that was undergoing an unprecedented period of transformation and uncertainty, Mandela’s release gave a renewed sense of hope and optimism. As Breyten Bretenbach the Afrikaans dissident writer wrote at the time: “Perhaps there is now a little more sense to our dark passage on Earth.”


Stefan Simanowitz is a London-based journalist and broadcaster. Between 1992 and 1994 he worked for the ANC helping to run the press office for in the ANC Western Cape during South Africa’s first democratic elections. Photo reprinted from Wikipedia