Madiba 20

Madiba's release remembered

2010-02-09 12:56

Special Report

Obama calls Mandela
Obama calls Mandela

US President Barack Obama has called former president Nelson Mandela to mark the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.

Johannesburg - "Electric and yet so tense", is how Siraaj Cassiem described waiting in Cape Town on February 11 1990, hoping to see former president Nelson Mandela emerge from prison after 27 years.

Cassiem, who at the time was an 18-year-old political activist, said: "Up until then Madiba was a slogan on a T-shirt, a slogan on a poster... That was the first time in my life that I actually saw the man. It was really a moving experience."

Although still in high school, Cassiem had played an active role in mass rallies calling for Mandela's release, who is often fondly called by his clan name Madiba.

"I saw Mandela walking hand in hand with his wife (Winnie) on TV, and then I heard on the radio that trains were free to the Grand Parade (outside City Hall).

"I called a friend and we took the train. The atmosphere was amazing...I have never seen so many people, everybody was happy and singing freedom songs."

Paddi Clay was working for a Canadian radio station then and said covering the release of Mandela was "the biggest story I have ever covered.

"It was a story I had been waiting for all my life. After that, I was quite happy to stop reporting."

An estimated 50 000 supporters waited at the Grand Parade, and some grew impatient as Mandela arrived five hours later than expected at City Hall, where he made his first speech as a free man.

Stones

Tempers flared under the blazing summer sun, and some people at the back of the crowd began looting shops and vendors. Police responded with teargas and rubber bullets.

"When we got bored, we went to the back of the crowd to taunt and throw stones at the police," Cassiem said.
Meanwhile, journalists prepared for the worst.

"At the same time, there was a mini riot at the back of the Grand Parade and you had that tension that you didn't know whether this incredible event would at any point go wrong and that this man who has spent so many years in prison was actually going to be assassinated," Clay said.

"We all had that at the back of our minds," she said.

The leader of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, Alan Boesak, helped calm the crowd before Mandela arrived.
Boesak said: "People were curious to see how he looked after 27 years and what kind of a person would appear before them.

"By seeing Madiba with their own eyes, people felt freedom was now tangible. They could feel and smell it.

"That day was a turning point. It was more of a defining moment signalling the end of white minority rule."

Prison

When Mandela finally arrived and stood on the balcony of City Hall, the crowd erupted in song and dance.

Cassiem said: "I can't remember a word he said.

"I think I was in awe of just seeing this great person and also just realising that I am part of a big moment in world history."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leading anti-apartheid activist, said he was in Johannesburg on the morning of Mandela's release conducting a baptism for one of his grandchildren.

"Although I firmly believed that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison at some point, I was not certain whether that would happen in my lifetime."

He hitched a lift on a private plane to Cape Town as soon as he could.

"The feeling was both magical and indescribable.

"We kept on pinching ourselves to make sure that we were not dreaming. It was a special moment that made us see that our struggle was worthwhile.

"I felt blessed to have lived to see the moment of his release, while some who were not fortunate died before they could see the fruits of their struggle."

Tutu, then still the archbishop of Cape Town, hosted Mandela at his house for his first night of freedom.

After the rally Cassiem said he knew things would never be same again and left politics.

"I wanted to go and join Umkhonto we Sizwe (military wing of the ANC) in exile, but there was no point anymore.

Madiba was preaching peace."


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