Today In History: Comrade Nelson Mandela Walks Free – 11 February 1990


Former President Nelson Mandela with his former wife Winnie on his release from 27 years of incarceration – The Day We Knew South Africa Would Never Be The Same

ON 11 February 1990, former President Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster prison where today stands a life-sized bronze statue of himself. After 27 years a prisoner, he was a free man.

Twenty-eight years ago today, the world waited, glued to their television sets or among the 50,000 people waiting at the Grand Parade in Cape Town – to see the man who much had been written and yet few – only his guards and close family – had seen.

The last president of the apartheid regime, F W De Klerk, had visited Mandela on 10 February 1990 to tell him he would be released the following day. Although De Klerk had announced on February 2nd, of the decision to release Mandela unconditionally, a date was not given. Of this sudden announcement of the date to release him, Mandela wrote in his book Long Walk To Freedom: “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise. I thanked Mr De Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organisation could be prepared.”

De Klerk left but returned later and stood firm on his offer.

Preparations of Mandela’s Release

Presenting the keynote address at the opening of two major exhibitions in honour of Nelson Mandela in 2010, the now ANC President recounted the events of the night before the great statesman was released:

“On February 10, 1990, the evening before Madiba was to walk free from Victor Verster Prison.

It was little over a week since the unbanning of the ANC, PAC, SACP and other organisations. Though we understood that momentous changes were taking place, it was impossible to grasp exactly how, and in what way, our country would change.

As we prepared for the release of Mandela, there were great expectations. But there was also great uncertainty.

We made the practical arrangements for Madiba’s release. We made plans for where he would speak, how he would travel, where he would stay.

But we really had no idea what would happen the day after.

We had no idea how the country would respond or how the conservative elements in our society would react.

Did this indeed herald the beginning of a negotiated transition, or was it merely another ploy to further delay the liberation of our people?

These were questions to which none of us had answers.

And what of the man himself?

In truth, the thousands of people who turned out to greet him knew very little about the real Nelson Mandela. They knew him as a symbol, as a representation of the struggle of the South African people. They had heard the stories about him. They may have read his statement from the dock.

But it was far from certain whether the man would live up to the myth.

After 20 years, we now know the answer.

In truth, Mandela the man fast surpassed Mandela the myth.

We were delighted, and somewhat relieved, that what we had been told about Mandela was indeed true.

We must pause here to pay particular tribute to the person who was perhaps most instrumental in promoting Nelson Mandela as the symbol of our struggle – his comrade, friend and law partner, Oliver Tambo.

More than anyone else, Oliver Tambo recognised the value to our struggle, both internationally and at home, for the release of Nelson Mandela to become a rallying point.

Through these efforts, he was able to ensure that from New York to Sydney, from Accra to Moscow, the citizens of the world were demanding a free Mandela.

That cry, ‘Free Mandela’, became shorthand for the broader call to end apartheid and to establish in South Africa a non-racial democracy.

The people understood that to free Mandela would necessarily require steps to free the people of South Africa.

That much was acknowledged by Madiba himself, in 1985, when he told the people of South Africa:

‘What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?.

‘I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.

‘Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.’

The release of Nelson Mandela was not an isolated moment.

It wasn’t a miracle. Nor was it achieved out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.

It was the result of an all-round intensification of the struggle against apartheid through mass action and mass defiance, armed struggle, international isolation and diplomatic engagement.

It was one of a sequence of events that led from the crisis of the apartheid state to its demise, to the achievement of democracy.

It was not the moment that South Africa became free. Indeed, much violence, struggle and setbacks were still to follow.

But it was the day on which we knew for certain that nothing in South Africa would be the same again.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we prepared for Mandela’s release, on the evening of Saturday, February 10, 1990, could we have imagined where the country would be today?”

Full speech here https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/cyril-ramaphosas-address-at-opening-of-nelson-mandela-exhibitions



The National Officials of the African National Congress will tomorrow 11th February 2018, lead the programme of the launch of the centennial celebrations in honor of Isithwalandwe/Seaparankoe Comrade Nelson Mandela.

The programme will commence with visits to faith based communities in line with the objectives of the revolutionary pilgrimage. The Officials will then join a number of ANC veterans for lunch with the programme culminating with the #Mandela100 Rally at the Grand Parade, Cape Town.

Members of the media are invited to cover the programme which will unfold as follows:

President Cde Cyril Ramaphosa
St George’s Cathedral Church, Cape Town CBD
Time: 09:00

Deputy Secretary Cde Jesse Duarte
Visit to burial site of Sheik Yusuf
Faure Kramat, Athlone
Time: 10:00

Treasurer General Cde Paul Mashatile
Jafta Methodist Church, Cnr NY6 and NY108, Gugulethu
Time: 09:00

All Officials
Lunch with ANC Veterans
Cape Town CBD
Time: 12:00

All Officials
Launch of Cde Mandela Centennial Celebrations
Grand Parade, Cape Town
Time: 14:00


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One Comment

  1. We trust that:
    The ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa will take lesson from our Icon Hon Mandela in handling the current leadership transtion.

    While Mandela`s transition style was not favourable to most of us, it ensured a peaceful & smooth transition and the Anc remained intact.

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