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Nelson Mandela: memories of a great man

6 December 2013 | by Andrew Hogg

Nelson MandelaI was there when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom from Victor Verster prison near Cape Town. I saw the arm raised with Winnie, the broad smile, and heard, or thought I did, the shout - Amandla! (Power!)

The potency of the moment was extraordinary. But there was little time to savour history being made. No sooner had the great man appeared than I was knocked flying in the surge of photographers, while the Mandelas sped off in a waiting car.

It was not an event I ever expected to witness. Appointed the Sunday Times Africa Correspondent six months earlier in August 1989, I had arrived in a country that seemed stuck in a time warp.

The President, PW Botha was about to retire, having famously balked at crossing the Rubicon several years earlier with a refusal to introduce significant reform. 

Apartheid was still in place, as well as sanctions. A state of emergency covered the country, the African National Congress (ANC) remained banned, and Nelson Mandela was starting his 27th year of imprisonment.

Within weeks of my arrival, however, FW De Klerk had become President and suddenly the first major cracks in the apartheid state began to appear.

The announcement that Walter Sisulu, former Secretary-General of the ANC, who had been imprisoned with Nelson Mandela in 1964, was to be released with other leading ANC figures was the first major shift.

That led to a jubilant rally in Johannesburg at which the party’s outlawed black, green and gold flag flew high – without police intervention.

The end of apartheid

Within weeks, De Klerk had ordered that South Africa's beaches would be opened to all races, adding that other public places, such as libraries and parks, would quickly follow suit.

The real bomb shell came the following February, however, when he announced to boos from Conservatives in the Parliament that he would repeal discriminatory laws and lift the 30-year ban on the ANC and other political groups.

The state of emergency would be lifted, he added, the death penalty suspended, press freedom restored – and Nelson Mandela would be released.

Even at that stage, however, no one expected that a week later Mr Mandela would take his first steps as a free man, witnessed only by representatives of the world’s press who had been allowed to gather outside the gaol.

Despite the bloody travails that followed as South Africa moved towards majority rule, the example that Nelson Mandela set remained undiminished. Integrity wins. He showed a continent, and a world, the way forward.

FW de Klerk

Some weeks after his release, I was able to ask FW de Klerk what had led him to embark on dismantling the apartheid state.

It had not been a Damascene conversion (a sudden and complete change in one's beliefs), he explained, but one inspired by faith.

The part of the Dutch Reformed Church that he followed had eventually decided that apartheid was a moral sin – and that had opened his eyes to the necessity of reform.

The week that I left South Africa 18 months later, South African police shot dead two white protesters demonstrating against a visit by De Klerk to the heartland of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).

It was then that I knew that change was inexorable, and that for South Africa, there would be no turning back.



Find out more

Christian Aid today paid tribute to the ‘magnanimity and moral courage’ of South Africa’s first freely elected President, Nelson Mandela, who has died. 


Photo: courtesy of South Africa The Good News, www.sagoodnews.co.za, and Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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Andrew Hogg

Andrew Hogg is Christian Aid's Head of Media.

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