On Sunday, the 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison near Cape Town a free man, after spending 27 years in prison. I was one of the many who waited patiently at the prison gates and I will never forget the excitement. Although we knew that this day would eventually come, nothing could have prepared us for how quick events were unfolding. At the time it seemed like history was on the march given that only a few months earlier on the 9th November 1989 the world witnessed the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’ and now we were about to witness the imminent release of Nelson Mandela.
While waiting with my friends, we kept reminding ourselves that this was not just a dream but in fact a reality. I kept expecting that at some moment the many police and security forces present would disperse, arrest, tear-gas, shoot at or set their dogs on us. I could have been forgiven for thinking such negative thoughts particularly on such a momentous occasion because for most of my life I had been on the receiving end of the police or security forces brutality.
Today, seemed so strange because the very police and security forces that we once feared had suddenly seemed so friendly and restrained. The journey from the many marches and burning barricades to this point of tranquillity and excitement seemed so distant or in the words of Nelson Mandela a ‘long walk to freedom’. It was around 4.15pm, South African time when Nelson Mandela finally emerged and amidst the euphoria I must admit to having mixed emotions. As he walked past us, with clenched fists we all raised our right arms and gave him the victory salute of ‘amandla awethu’ (power to the people) – in the past this simple act would have resulted in certain arrest.
I felt both a sadness and excitement at the same time because out of the shadows of the prison emerged a man who had lost 27 years of his life. I wondered how difficult it must have been for him not to see his wife and children or attend his eldest son and his mother’s funeral. I thought of the many thousands of South Africans who had also lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom and never got to experience true freedom. I wondered how, after 27 years in prison and at the age of 71 years, Nelson Mandela would manage to carry all the hopes and expectations of the nation on his shoulders. It was a day that will forever remain etched in my memory and it will go down in history as one of those pivotal days in millions of people’s memories worldwide. I still cannot believe that I was a witness to this day of magic.
In the days and months after his release I was blessed and honoured to get to work with Nelson Mandela and it was during this period that we all got to know him better. It was during this period that I only began to appreciate and understand the magnitude of what I had witnessed that Sunday, on the 11th February 1990. One day, I heard Nelson Mandela utter those famous words ‘‘As I walked out of the door that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind, I would still be in prison’. I now began to understand that it took a lot of strength, courage, integrity and commitment for Nelson Mandela to say “lets forgive and let it go”.
It is tempting to think of Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the affairs of lesser men. In many ways he strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” It was precisely because he could admit to imperfections. He could be so full of good humour, despite the heavy burdens he carried. This great icon was not just a bust made of marble; but a man of flesh and blood – a son, husband, a father and a friend.
I learned that nothing he achieved was inevitable because he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial. “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Nelson Mandela taught us about the power of action, ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion. He used his time in prison to sharpen his arguments and spread his thirst for knowledge. He learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.
The questions we face today on how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war – do not have easy answers. Nelson Mandela reminded us that it always seems impossible until it is done and that we can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
Nelson Mandela stirred something in me and woke me up to my responsibilities and set me on an improbable journey of discovery. While I will always fall short of his example, Nelson Mandela makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside of us. Let us search for the same strength that Nelson Mandela found – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Nelson Mandela, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell.
Finally, Nelson Mandela taught us that in life we face two primary choices: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.
God Bless you all.