The events that were to lead to the release of Nelson Mandela took almost a decade to unfold. There are numerous accounts of these events by those who were directly involved and by historians. For me they started when I was asked by Dr Beyers Naude, then secretary-general of the SACC, to go to Idutywa to tell Mrs Epainette Mbeki about the impending release of Oom Gov Mbeki. We in the Mass Democratic Movement, the only remaining legal voice of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, realised that the regime was testing the waters for a bolder political move at some later stage. We responded by forming the National Reception Committee. After all there was no political formation that could handle so delicate an undertaking.
By the time of the release of the Sisulu group in 1989 we knew what to do. We had come to understand, of course with gentle guidance from Lusaka and Pollsmoor, that it was important that we demonstrate a capacity to handle such significant political events without provoking reactionary elements within the regime. Even though we coined the slogan “ANC Lives; ANC Leads” for the Sisulu rally in Soweto, we handled that release with great political sensitivity. It is natural, therefore, that when the release of Mandela was decided the regime would advise the National Reception Committee.
On Saturday the 10th of February 1990, I arrived at the Gugulethu home of Bulelani and Phumzile Ngcuka in the company of the Rev Jesse Jackson and Dr Allan Boesak. I was hosting the Rev Jackson on behalf of the SACC whose guest he was. Bulelani, who was also a member of the National Reception Committee, told me that he had just heard from Dullah Omar that minister Kobie Coetsee wanted to see the available members of the National Reception Committee later that morning. I immediately advised the Rev Jackson that an important matter had arisen and I had to leave him in the capable hands of Dr Boesak. Bulelani and I raced to Dullah’s house. We were joined there by Trevor Manuel and Mohammed Valli Moosa amongst those I recall. We knew that it must have something to do with the long-awaited release of Nelson Mandela. We did not know what conditions the regime would impose on him and how he received them. We were confident, though, that Mandela would not have agreed to conditions that were not politically palatable.
And so off we went to see Kobie Coetsee at his office at 120 Plein Street. It was a polite and congenial meeting. He calmly told us that Mandela would be released unconditionally from Pollsmoor Prison at 15h00 the following day. What were our plans, he asked us. We had expected that they would give us some time to prepare. After all, there was so much to think about, to prepare, and we did not have the resources. On the other hand, how could we argue that Nelson Mandela should spend another day in prison? We told Mr Coetsee that it was difficult for us to say what our plan was without talking to him. We requested that we be allowed to go and see him that afternoon in Pollsmoor. He agreed.
The nearest place we could go to regroup and absorb what had just happened was a small hotel room around Roeland Street in which Valli Moosa and his girlfriend, now wife, had holed themselves for that weekend. There were phone calls to be made; to the chairperson of the National Reception Committee, Cyril Ramaphosa; to Cde Walter Sisulu; to Lusaka; to Mrs Winnie Mandela; and many more. After all these calls were made we drove to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl and were taken to the house that had been Madiba’s home there for several years. I had been incarcerated in this prison for two weeks in 1982 on my way from Robben Island to be released after serving my five-year sentence. It seemed like a different place to the one I had known and experienced in those years. It felt almost benign.
We found Madiba in great spirits. It was a reunion with most of us. I had last seen him in the flesh in December of 1981 when I went to say good bye to him before we were carted off to Pollsmoor and then St Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth for release. I had kept in touch with him by correspondence which, miraculously those days, reached him and he could respond to. I found him to be much slimmer than I remembered him. He was also taller than I thought he was on Robben Island. It could be that I had never seen him in civilian clothes except in pictures.
Madiba welcomed us with great warmth. Soon I forgot that this was not his house. He asked the warder who was in attendance to prepare some snacks for us. We found a bottle of wine in the house which we used to celebrate the impending release. He would not partake of the wine. After all these pleasantries we sat down to the business of the day. Madiba related to us the events leading to his release. The initial plan of the regime was to put him on a private plane and fly him to Johannesburg, where he would be released. He objected to this plan and said that Cape Town had been his home for almost three decades. Therefore, he wanted to be released in Cape Town and make his first public appearance in Cape Town. He won that battle.
We began to discuss the programme for the following day. Of course we had to ensure that his family was there when he was released. Arrangements for them to be flown in a private jet were already under way. There were other political stalwarts and colleagues to be flown to Cape Town, such as Tata Sisulu. As we were going through the events of the following day members of the Reception Committee were calling people, making arrangements. There were no cellphones then to make all these communications easy.
Then came the issue of the rally. Initially, Madiba wanted to make his first address to the community of Paarl. After some discussions it was felt that this was going to be difficult. The main rally had to be in Cape Town at the Parade in front of the City Hall. We could not take the risk of holding that rally too late because we would not be able to control the crowds once it became dark. From that Saturday evening the MDM/UDF machinery was in motion. The release had to be announced to the people, they had to be told about the rally at the parade, material had to be printed, marshals had to be organised, etc. Cape Town was buzzing that night.
We then discussed the points that he wanted to raise in his first public speech in 27 years. He raised the issues he wanted to touch. Valli Moosa and myself took notes because we had to put the speech together overnight and then discuss it with him the following day. It was all easy until he said he wanted to say that Mr De Klerk is a man of honour. We told him that we thought it would be a mistake to make such a statement. Our people would not understand, we said. He insisted, arguing that if we wanted to negotiate with a government led by De Klerk we had to give him the benefit of doubt. It was up to him to prove that he was not. We relented after much argument. Madiba had to come back to this issue at Codesa a year or so later when he asked to respond to De Klerk’s speech and rebuked him by saying that “even a leader of a discredited minority regime had to observe certain protocols”.
We left Pollsmoor in the early hours of Sunday the 11th buoyant and excited and in defiance of fatigue. Every one of us had a task to do before we returned to Madiba as planned around 11h00. None of us slept that day. Valli and I took the notes from the Saturday evening meeting and used them to write the speech that Madiba had to deliver at the Parade. We brought the speech to Pollsmoor the following day and had a few minor corrections and additions. By the Sunday, people were streaming into Madiba’s house, mainly National Reception Committee members and Western Cape UDF leaders who had different tasks to do and report on. The flight that was bringing Mrs Mandela and the family was delayed and resulted in the appointed hour of the walk being missed.
My main responsibility in the National Reception Committee was to handle all the media affairs for the committee. It seemed that Sunday morning that all of the press of the world was at the gate at Pollsmoor. As soon as we had finished the speech I turned my attention to the media at the gate. It was a hot day. There was jostling and pushing and swearing. Everybody wanted to take the first picture. I spent hours at the gate trying to organise the media. Eventually I sent a message inside the house that if Madiba did not get out of the car at the gate and walk so that every camera could get the same picture we would have chaos. In any case there were also so many people at the gate, farm owners, farm workers, who wanted to get a glimpse of him and would probably never see him in the flesh again. He had to greet them too. My suggestion was accepted and he walked out of prison around 16h30 on Sunday 11 February 1990. I was amazed by the people of Paarl, black and white, who lined the streets in order to salute him until the motorcade got onto the freeway to Cape Town.
The motorcade was led by traffic cops into Cape Town. They told us that they knew a way into the City Hall that would be safe and secure. They had no idea, neither did we, of the pull of Nelson Mandela. They were overwhelmed by the crowd and ended up driving through the 70 000-strong crowd. The danger of his car being squashed by enthusiastic supporters trying to catch a glimpse of their leader was very real. The ironic thing is that the people who were most concerned about the amateurish way in which we handled that situation were the security police who were his captors. Now they were his protectors.
After much drama, Madiba made it to the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall. The light was fading. Cyril had to hold a lamp for him to be able to see the words of his speech. The speech closed with a pledge in Xhosa, “Ubomi bam busezandleni zenu” (My life is in your hands). In the fading light Madiba read it as “Ubomi bam busedlanzeni zenu”, which is a corruption of the original saying. And thus ended a momentous day with the marshals shepherding the crowds home and ensuring that not a single incident of vandalism or violence marred the reception of our leader by the people of Cape Town. Madiba’s life was that day, until today, in the hands of the people of South Africa.