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Today in History, Nelson Mandela Walked Out of Prison a Free Man

Born in 1918 in the eastern Cape of South Africa, Mandela had led the ANC's nonviolent protest against the apartheid legislation which enforced a racial hierarchy that subjugated South Africa's black majority.

On 11 February 1990, at 16:14 local time, Nelson Mandela, once South Africa’s most wanted man, walked out of Victor Verster Prison hand-in-hand with his then wife Winnie, after spending 27 years behind bars.

Huge crowds had waited for hours in the sweltering heat in anticipation of catching sight of him. Mandela had been largely hidden from view during his long years of imprisonment. The government had not released any photos of him while he had been in captivity, in the hope of curbing his growing fame since his conviction.

His release happened after the Apartheid government had previously offered him conditional freedom in 1985. This was turned down and Mandela asked his daughter Zindzi to read out his reply to the offer at a rally in Jabulani, Soweto.
When Mandela was finally released in 1990 none of the conditions applied because it was such an auspicious moment of hope for South Africa and the world – the end of Apartheid was near and a climate conducive to peaceful negotiations in good faith was needed.
This article details Nelson Mandela‘s recollections in interviews that he had with Richard Stengel during the writing of Long Walk to Freedom.
In the first extract, Madiba expresses surprise that a huge crowd had gathered outside Victor Verster Prison to see him walk out of the prison gates.

“No, I had asked the prison authorities to make sure that the warders who worked with me in the section of the prison where I was kept, should assemble at the gate with their families so that I could have the opportunity of thanking them and I was expecting no more than, you know, 20 to 30 people because they were working in shifts and so on and I was expecting no more than 30 people. I was surprised then to see the crowd. I never even had the opportunity of seeing the warders because of the crowd, both inside the gate and outside.”


I was with my friends in this huge crowd that had gathered on the Grand Parade at the Cape Town City Hall as Madiba was expected to make his first public speech in 30 years from there. The crowd grew bigger as the day progressed.

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Then there were sections of the crowd that became unruly. When the car came through the crowd, this resulted in more pushing and shoving, and we decided to leave Cape Town City Hall and watched the rest of the proceedings on TV.

In this extract, Madiba explains what happened when he reached the City Hall:


“Well, it was a difficult operation because we had been warned to go around because the crowd was big. And that, if they saw us, there would be a lot of excitement and disorder and chaos. And we observed this, we went right round, you know driving around the crowd, but somehow the driver made a mistake and found himself in the crowd. Those were very anxious moments because the crowd just surrounded us. It was a Sunday afternoon and others, some of them had had a jolly time during the day and they were unable to discriminate and they were just pressing on the windows – the pressure was great. At one time the car was threatening to tilt and I was very much concerned. They tried very hard to open, to enable the car to go forward, it could not go forward, it could not go backwards. And people like Alan Boesak and others tried hard to open some space for me. But it was a difficult operation. Eventually, after some time which could have lasted even about an hour, they managed to open some space, but after a serious struggle because the people now, some of them had gotten on top of the bonnet, others from behind, and it was very hot. I was, I, Winnie and I were suffocating inside but, eventually, they opened. And then the driver was driving away, so I say, ‘where are you going to?’ He says, ‘I don’t know’.  And he was so upset, he says, ‘I don’t know’ and eventually we went to the home of Dullah Omar. And then Tutu, Archbishop Tutu phoned, that fellow has always been that person, man, has always been very magnificent towards the family. It was his concern that I should be safe but that I should come back. And he says, ‘the crowd is angry here, they want you back. You must come back immediately’. And he then said, ‘you must enter the hall from behind. We have prepared, we have opened a way for you.’ So we came back and, but it was just as difficult.”


In the following extract, Madiba explains how his speech was written:

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“We had discussed the matter, what it [the speech] should contain, and then we had one of them I think Trevor, to go and draft it and he brought the speech, we went through it and put the final details and the final draft was then made. And that’s how it was drafted.”

Watching the speech was electrifying and well-received by the crowd. Towards the end, Madiba reiterated in iSixhosa that he entrusts the remaining years of his life in their [the people of South Africa] hands and urged the crowd to depart in a dignified manner.

The next extract focuses on Bishopscourt where Madiba spent his first night out of prison.


“After that, I then went to the place of Archbishop Tutu. We had discussed the matter in prison with Trevor and others and I had said that I would have liked to be in the township, to stay there because I didn’t think it was wise for me to go and stay in town but they told me that the nature of Bishopscourt, which was the headquarters of the Anglican Church, had changed and that with the take-over by Tutu, it had become a people’s centre and young people from the townships were now gathering there on various occasions. And that it was proper for me to go and stay there. So I eventually agreed and they arranged with Tutu that I should go and stay there. And I went there when I was released. And he and his wife Leah, they were very kind to me and Winnie”.


In this final extract, Madiba recollects coming to Johannesburg for the first time, but couldn’t stay at his own home in Orlando West, Soweto.

“The Orlando [house], yes. Yes, they had surrounded the house and you won’t be able to get in. And they said a meeting must be arranged at the Orlando Stadium so as to get the crowds away from the house. So I had to sleep somewhere in town. So,  He slept in a suburb called North Riding, northwest of Johannesburg.

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