Guest Column

OPINION | Nelson Mandela's release: living through a once-in-a-lifetime event

2020-02-11 07:00
Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela, a few days after Mandela's 11 February 1990 release. (Netwerk24, file)

Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela, a few days after Mandela's 11 February 1990 release. (Netwerk24, file)

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In essence, Mandela's release and the unbanning of the political parties in 1990 was as momentous, and as limited, as the emancipation of the slaves back in 1834, writes Keith Gottschalk

The drama of living through a once-in-a-lifetime event is never forgotten: WW2; revolution; independence; the first human flight to the moon.

For 26 years I had kept hidden on my bookshelves the one 1964 issue of Drum magazine, which published across its front page the last photos of Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists that it would be lawful to publish.

Govan Mbeki (the oldest of them), Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Raymond Mhlaba, and Dennis Goldberg had already been released.

Of them, only Andrew Mlangeni and Dennis Goldberg are still alive today, octogenarians.

The release of the legendary Nelson Rolihlala Mandela in 1990 would cap the sensational un-banning of the African National Congress (ANC), its rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the Communist Party (SACP) and all other banned organisations a week earlier.

This, in turn, capped decades of sabotage, rioting, rolling general strikes, mass demonstrations, economic sanctions, and boycotts against apartheid.

Observers referred to "low-level civil war".

rivonia

On 11 February 1994, then President Mandela and six of this fellow prisoners return to the lime quarry on Robben Island where they worked. From left: Dennis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu, all fellow defendants at the Treason Trial. On the far right is Wilson Mkwayi, who was arrested after the Rivonia Trial and tried and convicted separately on similar charges. (Jabu Kumalo, News24, file)

The previous president, PW Botha, and the Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, routinely called it "total onslaught".

All told, between 10 000 to 20 000 South Africans were killed during 1983-1996.

That western journalists praised this as a peaceful transition, even "a small miracle", is a sombre reminder of the scale on which they anticipated civil war would reach.

After 27 April 1990, when Mandela was sworn in as President and the ANC as government, western journalists hung around for a week waiting for revenge massacres which never came.

Then they, one by one, flew off to cover the Rwandan genocide. Mandela’s awards included both the Lenin Prize and the Nobel Prize.

In essence, Mandela's release and the unbanning of the political parties in 1990 was as momentous, and as limited, as the emancipation of the slaves back in 1834.

Only a small minority of freed slaves became prosperous as barrel-makers, blacksmiths, cabinet-makers, carpenters and wheelwrights. The great majority of freed slaves remained in poverty as badly paid farm workers.

Since 1990 the investor and middle classes have more than tripled in size with desegregation.

The wealthy suburban schools and universities are transforming.

But over nine million South Africans are trapped in the poverty of unemployment or occasional casual labour.

They survive with the lifeline of austere social grants or pensions.

Today’s momentous challenges include getting the apprenticeship system, and the Technical & Vocational colleges (TVET) to work as efficiently as the German system.

Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk in 1990. (Gallo Images)

This would lift millions out of poverty.

Another vital need is for all parties to re-commit themselves to non-racialism, to rainbow-ism, as a lifelong ideology.

Opportunistic racist verbal retorts on twitter and elsewhere, and riots against African and south Asian foreigners, serve as a warning of what needs to be avoided for a democratic and prosperous South Africa.

- Keith Gottschalk is a political scientist from the University of the Western Cape.

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