February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom
Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released
It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:
By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.
At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.
Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]
When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.
It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):
It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.
Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:
I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies. Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.
Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris
Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:
Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.
Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:
It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.
I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.
Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964
Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.
- 27 December 1953: My Two Weeks in Gaol (Guardian)