Madiba 20

Vlok watched from lucerne field

2010-02-11 09:48

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.

Cape Town - They did not dare to watch Nelson Mandela's release out in the open, so the two security chiefs sat in a lucerne field watching the Victor Verster Prison from afar.

"I wasn't exactly the most beloved figure," said former minister of law and order Adriaan Vlok, 20 years later.

He and General Johan van der Merwe, chief of the former South African Police Force, sat snugly in a helicopter amid cattle fodder, trying to maintain a low profile.

Former president FW de Klerk had earlier addressed commanders about this day. Riot units and ordinary police officials across the country had to be at the ready, but "under the radar".

Spark an explosion

"Because a policeman at the wrong place could spark an explosion, we didn't want to move around conspicuously with firearms and Casspirs," said Vlok.

February 11 1990 was an incredibly hot day in Paarl.

Thousands of people, some wearing struggle T-shirts, were milling about in front of the prison gates from early that morning.

Days before, the police had recommended the release take place in Soweto "where the danger of a clash between people from different organisations would be minimal".

"Hard experience" had taught them that "large-scale violence and countrywide unrest" could break out within the blink of an eye.

In addition, the release had to take place on a Sunday when bottle stores were closed "because freely available alcohol was usually the cause of violence and unrest".

Walk out a free man

An agreement was finally reached about the day but Mandela "flatly refused" to appear in Soweto, said Van der Merwe. "He insisted that he wanted to walk out of the Victor Verster Prison as a free man."

It was agreed that it would happen "early in the morning". But the morning came and went, and still there was no news.

"Winnie Mandela only showed up after 12:00."

Meanwhile, the boisterous ANC supporters had made their way into the vineyards and were picking grapes, he remembered. "The police had to intervene quickly to stop them."

It was 16:10 that afternoon when Mandela gave his first free strides in 27 years.

Everything happened in an orderly fashion, but Vlok and Van der Merwe were very worried about the masses milling about on the Grand Parade in Cape Town's city centre. They headed that way in the helicopter.

The crowds were impatient, thirsty and tired of waiting. Van der Merwe said vehicles were damaged, shop windows broken and a few bottle stores were robbed.

Vlok confirmed that they were very "unhappy" about the fact that Mandela only arrived there to address the approximately 50 000 people at 19:40 that night.

Those were anxious moments "because we had no idea what Madiba would say".

Later that night, Vlok went to bed exhausted.

"We were prepared for the worst. But I lay my head on my pillow with immense gratitude and said 'thank the Lord that went well'."


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