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“Conversations about that day” — 20 years later

5th February 2010

By: Sapa


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In February 1990, African National Congress (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.


On Thursday this week, 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 that 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 Sonto.

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:

RAMAPHOSA: "It was in the eighties that we really started breaking the back of apartheid... with the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions."

NGCUKA: It was in the eighties that the National Party lost control of the townships."

MPOFU: "The eighties is an unsung decade because that was the decade that we turned things around."

KATHRADA [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 that Mandela's first demand was the release of all prisoners, and the unbanning of organisations.

MADIKIZELA-MANDELA said that 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 that 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 National Party would like to open dialogue.

"That's how the negotiations started."

CHIKANE: "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 along side 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 that 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 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 on Thursday 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 Ramaphosa.

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 exercised.

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 well."



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