Reminiscing about that day, 20 years later

2010-02-05 14:21

In February 1990, ANC activist Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela walked out of the gates

of Victor Verster prison a free man after being jailed for 27 years by the

apartheid regime.

There to meet him were members of the National Reception Committee,

who helped Mandela as he took the first steps to his election four years later

as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Yesterday, former members of the committee and family members

gathered in Johannesburg to reminisce about that day, 20 years ago.

The gathering, arranged by his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

and his daughter Zindzi, took place around a dining-table in a marquee on the

grounds of Mandela’s Houghton home.

Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, a Catholic priest detained and

tortured during the apartheid years, said the gathering had brought together the

people who served on the reception committee.

“I am a priest and I was responsible for Nelson’s security that

day,’’ he laughed.

“We are meeting to reminisce. When you look back, the way this

country has become normal is unbelievable. There were prophets of doom, but life

has gone on and we have done exceptionally well, even though there is still lots

to do.”

Asked how Mandela was, Mkhatshwa, who went on to become mayor of

Pretoria, said: “He looks fine, jolly as ever. Age has taken its toll but he has

not lost his sense of humour.”

Among those attending the celebration were Mandela’s children and

grandchildren, ANC comrades, former activists, and members of government past

and present.

They included Cyril Ramaphosa, Dali Mpofu, Bulelani Ngcuka, Saki

Macozoma, Valli Moosa, Trevor Manuel, Sydney Mufamadi, Winnie

Madikizela-Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Frank Chikane, Murphy Morobe and Roseberry


Also present were Sister Bernard Ncube, Hilda Ndude, Farieda Omar,

photographer Alf Kumalo, and ex-prison warder Christo Brand, who befriended

Mandela during his years of incarceration under the apartheid regime.

The group dined and chatted about February 1990, jogging each

other’s memories, interjecting, laughing and teasing.

These were some of their reminiscences:


“It was in the eighties that we really started breaking the back of apartheid .

. . with the formation of the UDF and Cosatu.”


It was in the eighties that the National Party lost control of the townships.”


“The eighties is an unsung decade because that was the decade that we turned

things around.”


[who was in prison during this period]: “I was taken by what these guys were

doing outside,” he said, nudging Manuel, who was then a UDF activist. “They were

responding to the ANC’s call to make the country ungovernable.”

Kathrada said Mandela’s first demand was the release of all

prisoners, and the unbanning of organisations.


said in 1985 she accosted then minister of justice and prisons, Kobie Coetzee.

“I walked up to a little white man at a car and asked: “When are you releasing

my husband?

“He turned red. Never had a Bantu woman spoken to him like that.

Coetzee said the National Party would never release the prisoners. I said to

him: ‘We will force you to release them’.”

Some time later, she met Coetzee at his house.

“I was terrified of my people finding out,” she said to laughter.

Coetzee, representing President PW Botha’s cabinet, was the first

negotiator. She conveyed the message to Mandela that the NP would like to open


“That’s how the negotiations started.”


“Riding from Victor Verster prison to Cape Town, we saw people on the sides of

roads and standing on bridges. [Visiting American politician] Jesse Jackson’s

car was mobbed by people thinking he was Nelson Mandela.

“We lost Madiba for a while. There was panic. Our concern was to

protect Mandela from the crush of people.”

NGCUKA: “As we were driving Madiba to

the Parade [in Cape Town where Mandela delivered his first speech as a free

man], a white guy appeared driving alongside us.

“It turned out to be Willie Hofmeyr [who went on to become head of

the present-day Special Investigating Unit].

“Willie shouted ‘Comrades, don’t go to the Parade, we’ve lost

control there’.

“But Trevor told us if we don’t go to the Parade today, Cape Town

will be in ashes.”

MANUEL: “Madiba was cool, cool, cool.

He was our responsibility. We had no cellphones, no walkie talkies. The sum

total of our security – we wore dark suits, and walked around with our hands in

our pockets.”

RAMAPHOSA said he was worried about how

the ANC would come across as the whole world was watching the release.

“The world media fell in love with him. He had them eating out of

his hand. He really elevated the ANC.”

MOOSA: “There is no accurate written

account of those three days [from news of Mandela’s release to his appearance

before the public]. We owe it to posterity to write this account down. We were

numb with adrenalin, none of us slept for those three days.

“Mandela went to visit the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) troops in camp.

We had to dress up in military fatigues because this was what Nelson Mandela

did. He walked through the camp with the bearing of a military general.”

Sonwabile Mancotywa, chief executive officer of the National

Heritage Council, said: “Our liberation struggle has to be mainstreamed. Young

South Africans must know our history. Cuba was liberated in 1959 yet they

[still] commemorate their history. We face a battle against forgetfulness.”

Late yesterday afternoon, Mandela himself appeared. His daughter

Zindzi led the clapping as the old man was helped into the marquee with his wife

Graca by his side.

The guests sat in a horseshoe around Mandela, while Ramaphosa

proposed a toast.

“This has been a historical journey down memory lane. The people

here were responsible for arranging your release. These people were in the

national reception committee. They worked day and night to secure your release.

They were totally ill-prepared to assist your return to society.

“We would like to thank you Tata for having given so much of your

life, your talent, your intellect, the sacrifices you made to bring us to where

we are today.

“You are still an inspiration. We are forever indebted to you, for

the leadership and inspiration you provided. We are happy you are a free man,

because as you became free, you made us free. Thank you Tata,” said


Young Luvuyo Mandela thanked the guests: “Without your work I would

not have had a 91-year-old great grandfather. I was four-years-old when all of

this was taking place.”

Former warder Brand asked 91-year-old Mandela whether he still


Madiba replied: “It’s not easy, but I do it every now and then. I

do feel like I am getting old. Time is flying. I’m not really worried.”

His daughter Zindzi said of the event: “I am so happy . . . blown

away. It’s deeply emotional for me. It lifted my spirits and that of my dad. He

doesn’t want to leave, look at him. I never thought it would work out so


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