Remembering Nelson Mandela’s first steps of freedom


On 11 February 1990, millions watched as Nelson Mandela took his first steps of freedom.

FW de Klerk Nelson Mandela
Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos in 1992. (Image: World Economic Forum, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Brand South Africa reporter

Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison because he insisted on doing so.

If he didn’t have his way he would have been dropped off at his small house in Soweto, 1 400 kilometres away.

Just two days before, President FW de Klerk told him he would be flown to Johannesburg and released in Soweto. Mandela refused.

He also asked for another week in prison to allow his comrades outside to prepare properly. De Klerk refused.

So on Sunday, 11 February 1990, millions of people around the world watched as Mandela took his first steps of freedom in 10 050 days through the gates of the last prison he was detained in.

It was nine days after De Klerk legalised the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress and announced that Mandela would soon be freed.

It was 27 years, six months and four days since South Africa’s most wanted man had been arrested at a roadblock outside the eastern town of Howick. The father of five young children from two marriages walked to freedom as a 71-year-old grandfather.


One would have expected some jubilation from the man who had endured two criminal trials, two prison sentences and time in four prisons. But all who encountered Mandela in the days leading up to his release were struck by his calmness.

Trevor Manuel visited him in prison soon after De Klerk had announced that he would leave the prison the next day. When he arrived at the house where Mandela had been held for the last 14 months of his imprisonment, he found him already in his pyjamas.

On the day of his release Mandela was up early as usual, read the newspapers over breakfast and even had his daily nap as thousands of supporters and journalists gathered outside the prison.

Children had been born since his capture and had grown into adults; many became freedom fighters themselves, inspired by the sacrifice of Mandela and his comrades. They had been detained, tortured, forced into exile and killed. Some encountered him as fellow political prisoners.


While some young firebrands grew frustrated with his manner, he impressed them in jail with his dignity. He made a conscious decision to hold on to it at all costs.

“I believe the way in which you will be treated by the prison authorities depends on your demeanour and you must fight that battle and win it on the very first day,” he said to journalists some years after his release.

While some prison authorities were brutes, there were some with whom he formed friendships. One was Jack Swart, who was Mandela’s last warder. Even Swart, who spent every day of 14 months with him, did not notice him as anything but calm as he prepared for freedom.

In the searing summer heat of 11 February 1990 Mandela and his wife Winnie walked a few metres towards the crowd lining the road outside the prison. Freshly-sewn flags in the colours of the African National Congress were held aloft. Just ten days earlier, merely having one could have earned them a vicious beating from police and even time in prison.


For the last three years of his imprisonment Mandela was involved in secret discussions with the apartheid regime with a view to setting up eventual multiparty negotiations to end apartheid.

Ironically this is what he was calling for before he was jailed. His letters in1961 to Prime Minister HF Verwoerd were ignored, so he called for a strike against South Africa becoming a republic, away from the Commonwealth Group of Nations.

A peaceful solution out of the question, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a partner in South Africa’s first black law firm became the first Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.

Passive resistance

Mandela and Gandhi were often named in the same sentence when extolling the virtues of passive resistance.

Mandela put the matter to rest after his release when he said:

“If the conditions demanded, as they were, that we should avoid any form of action which would lead to bloodshed, I would avoid that. But if the conditions were such that one could depart from a non-violent struggle I would do so. That’s why we resorted to violence, for example. Because the conditions demanded that we should take up arms. The government had banned our organisation, it had sent people to exile, thrown others to jail, gagged those who were inside and imposed ruthless repression. In that situation it was proper to take up arms. Gandhi would never have agreed.”

Mandela went on a seven-month tour through Africa and to London in 1962 to raise support for the armed struggle and to undergo military training. He was captured soon after his return to South Africa. He was tried and sentenced on 7 November 1962 to five years in prison. His crime? Leaving the country without a passport and inciting a strike.


Ten months into his sentence he was brought to court on charges of sabotage relating to the ANC’s attacks on strategic installations in which no-one but a fellow freedom fighter was killed. Facing the death penalty, Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964.

During his imprisonment Mandela fought to improve prison conditions; demanded in vain for anti-apartheid fighters to be recognised as political prisoners; brought his legal skills to the aid of fellow inmates and urged unity between political organisations. Slowly, as the campaigns grew outside the prison walls, so did Nelson Mandela’s stature in the imagination of those opposed to apartheid.


“Rolihlahla Mandela, freedom is in your hands; show us the way to freedom in this land of Africa,” are some of the words of just one of many songs highlighting him as a saviour. Each refrain placed firmly on his shoulders, the expectations of millions.

He rejected several offers of conditional release, the last made on 31 January 1985. This time President PW Botha insisted that abandoning violence would be the only way to secure one’s freedom.

In his reply to Botha, Mandela wrote: “The coming confrontation will only be averted if the following steps are taken without delay.

  1. The government must renounce violence first
  2. It must dismantle apartheid
  3. It must unban the ANC
  4. It must free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exited for their opposition to apartheid
  5. It must guarantee free political activity.”

As the struggle within and outside South Africa intensified, successive states of emergency were imposed, giving security forces a free hand in detaining opponents of the state indefinitely.

By the end of 1985, when many parts of South Africa were literally in flames, Nelson Mandela was taken from his Pollsmoor prison cell to hospital. He needed prostate surgery and surgeons of his own choice were seconded onto the medical team.


While en route from Johannesburg to visit him, his wife encountered Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee on the flight. She engaged him in conversation and encouraged him to visit her husband in hospital.

The hospital meeting on 17 November 1985 was the moment Nelson Mandela needed. On his discharge he reached out to Coetsee and the first in a series of meetings took place the following year.

In August 1988, Mandela was admitted to another hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was treated at two different hospitals until 7 December when he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison.

By then Goldberg and Mbeki had already been released and Mandela used his contacts with the government to call for the release of the remaining Rivonia trialists.

On 15 October 1989 Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni were freed with Oscar Mpetha, Wilton Mkwayi and Jeff Masemola.


South Africa was still under a state of emergency when the regime released Mandela, but it had unbanned the organisations, allowed exiles to return and begun to free political prisoners.

Mandela had not been expected to renounce violence.

Within months of his release, the ANC delegation, which included returned exiles, sat down with the government team. These bilateral talks led to multi-party negotiations beginning in December 1991 and ending in November 1993 with the setting of an election date for 27 April 1994.

As President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela – prisoner number 19476/62, 11657/63, 466/64, 220/82 and 1335/88 – laid the first bricks in the building of a new foundation to hold his motherland for future generations. Nelson Mandela and his comrades pulled South Africa back from the precipice, but the country faced a long and arduous battle ahead.

Reviewed 25 April 2017

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation

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