20 years since Mandela walked free

Today South Africans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom – on February 11, 1990 – after 27 years as apartheid’s political prisoner.

Our march to freedom is irreversible.
- Nelson Mandela

16 June 1964: Mandela and seven others, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial are driven from the court to prison.

1966: Mandela sews prison clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison

21 March 1960: 59 people shot dead in the Sharpeville massacre

Soweto uprising Sam Nzima's photo of Hector Pieterson

Soweto uprising: Sam Nzima’s photo of Hector Pieterson, age 12 who died in Mbuyisa Makhubo’s arms after being shot by a police officer. Over 500 people were killed in the uprising.

Steve Biko: died 12 September 1977, murdered in police custody

11 February 1990: jubilation in Soweto

11 February 1990 was one of those days of your life that you can remember vividly, almost moment to moment, decades after: the long wait, through a Sunday lunchtime as the release was delayed, watching live on TV as the world’s cameras waited for the moment that Mandela would emerge from the gates of the prison.

In today’s Independent, there’s a piece by Gordon Brown in which he states, “for many of us born in the second half of the 20th century, the anti-apartheid struggle was the defining political question of our time”. He recalls how, almost 40 years ago at Edinburgh University:

Through a painstaking investigation we exposed the University’s shares in apartheid South Africa, and eventually forced their sale. So many of us could tell similar stories – of the rugby matches boycotted, the holidays not taken, the petitions signed.  The contribution of the British people – the trades unions, the student movement, the Liberal and Labour Parties, the ordinary shoppers who did their bit – all of it should never be forgotten.

Opposition to racism and apartheid was central to my politics as a student at Liverpool University at the same time. I have recently been researching the events of the occupation of the university’s administration block in March 1970 and posting the results in another blog.  The occupation was demanding the resignation of the university Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, infamous for his racist politics and economic interests in apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and that the university relinquish its investments in companies profiting from their involvement in South Africa.

For me, and I suspect for most of the other 300 or so involved in the protest (including ITN news anchor Jon Snow), this remains a moment in my life that I would never disown.

Back in 1970 I doubt that we could never have imagined a peaceful, negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. What scenarios did we have for challenges to repressive state power and regime change at that time? Sharpeville…Prague ’68…Hungary ‘56 ? We surely envisaged that these regimes would only be overthrown by armed uprising and revolution. South Africa in 1990 is comparable to Eastern Europe in 1989 in that both situations were pretty much unprecedented in terms of the absence of violence. That’s not to say that the regimes weren’t under pressure (in the case of South Africa, the pressures of the international boycotts and disinvestment campaigns, coupled with the resulting pressure from multinationals, were clearly a powerful factor). Recognising that doesn’t, to my mind, undermine the crucial importance of the internal resistance -  the ANC, Steve Biko’s Black Conciousness movement, the school boycotts, the Soweto risings, the courage of the men and women, schoolchildren, students, trade unionists who resisted down the years.

In a ceremony outside the gates of Victor Verster prison today, Cyril Ramaphosa told thousands of ANC supporters:

De Klerk did not free Mandela, you did. De Klerk did not end apartheid, you the people – the ANC – did.

Ijuba by Mzwakhe Mbuli

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini

From childhood to adulthood
Non could arrest my mind
From the cradle to the grave
None could imprison my mind
From obscurity to excellence
None could manipulate my mind
From season to season
Non could infiltrate my brainpower
From prison to release
Non could scar my mental capacity

Prison bars and doors
Prison gates and keys
Prison security and walls
Prison itself could not imprison my mind

My mind is impenetrable
My mind is indomitable
My mind is invincible
Yes my mind is extraordinarily powerful

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini

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2 thoughts on “20 years since Mandela walked free

  1. As much as I love Manela, I disagree completely on the way the world handles Africa. Sanctions and disinvestment only hurt the innocent. They are nothing but another form of terrorism. They make foreign countries feel noble, but the plain fact is that the only people who suffer are the poor and those who have no power or voice in the first place. I have seen the suffering in South Africa with 40% unemployment and children dying of malnutrition in the Transkei. I’m completely against sanctions.

    What depresses me the most, as someone born in Southern Rhodesia (then Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe), is the fact that no-one in the “First World” seems to care anymore. Zimbabweans hold a vigil meets every Saturday (or is it every 2nd Saturday?) in London. They’ve been doing so for ten years…

    Ten years. :-(

    When will the world deal with Mugabe? How come he does not excite world passion the way Ian Smith did?

  2. I really love Nelson Mandela, In fact he gives me strength day by day. I really feel to live by his words of courage, forgiveness and free yourself from what does not belong to you. Ask and questions to get way through. Long live long live Mandela long live!!!!!!!!!!!!.

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