By Raymond Joseph


On 11 February 1990, the day that millions of South Africans had dreamed of for years – and many had fought and died for – had finally dawned. Tens of thousands of people in Cape Town streamed into the city for a rally on the Grand Parade in front of City Hall to welcome Mandela and listen to the struggle icon’s first public address as a free man. 


Activist Vanessa Watson had decided to stay home and watch the historic event on television rather than make her way to the Parade because she had one-year-old twins. As she sat watching TV and waiting for the newly released struggle icon to address the rally, however, a friend knocked on her door. He told her that Mandela was outside her home.


“We were expecting him to appear on TV any moment, so I couldn’t believe he was outside my house. I assumed my friend was mistaken,” said Watson, now Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Cape Town.


When she went outside, she saw Mandela sitting in a car looking “relaxed and pleased”. The car that had driven him from Victor Verster Prison in the nearby town of Paarl had been forced to divert because of the huge crowds, and his small convoy had regrouped in the street outside Watson’s home in a suburb close to Cape Town, to decide what to do.


When Watson greeted Mandela, with one of her twins balanced on her hip, he asked her if he could hold the young boy. This was an early insight into Mandela’s great love for children, his humility and his gift for connecting with ordinary people – traits that were to become the hallmarks of his presidency.


“I was amazed and delighted; first that he was outside my house, and secondly that he just wanted to hold a baby. I couldn’t believe this was happening. He didn’t seem at all awkward – he seemed very comfortable to hold a child. He asked the name of the first one (Simon) and why we had called him that, and then asked the name of the second one (Daniel) when he held him.”


It was Mandela’s second close encounter with children that day after his long years in prison, surrounded by fellow adult prisoners and their jailers. 


As his convoy drove along the back roads through sprawling farmlands a few hours earlier, heading for Cape Town, hundreds of people of all races had gathered along the route to greet him.


Trade unionist Whitey Jacobs, who was a passenger in the car with Mandela and his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said: “We set off down back roads, driving through the farming areas of Paarl. They were lined with people, many of them Afrikaans-speaking farmers and their families, and Madiba remarked on how many white people had turned out.


“We saw Afrikaner farmers as very conservative at that time and to this day I cannot get out of my head how he ordered us to stop so he could talk to a white woman and her two kids. I thought ‘what is he doing with these people’. But that day I realised that South Africa’s people are not what we think, that we had been divided into colours by the law and what you saw was not what you got. I will never forget the lesson Madiba taught me that day.”


In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela also wrote about his journey to Cape Town. “I was totally surprised at the number of whites who seemed to identify themselves with what is happening in the country today among blacks. I expected that response from blacks, but the number of whites who feel that change is absolutely imperative, surprised me.”


As Mandela mixed freely with people for the first time in decades, there was an undercurrent of fear within the ranks of the African National Congress (ANC), which did not trust the government or the police to ensure his safety. 


Roseberry Sonto, who retired recently as a Member of Parliament, drove Mandela to Cape Town. He said the decision to travel along back roads was made to avoid the huge crowds that had gathered outside the prison.


“As we drove through the farmlands, Madiba remarked on what a lovely day it was and how beautiful the farms and flowers were. He spoke about the people lining the roads and the number of white people there were who had come out to welcome him. He also commented on things we were seeing as we drove down the N1 highway towards Cape Town, the throngs of people lining the road and those on the bridges who were waving flags and holding banners saying ‘Welcome Madiba’. He was amazed that they were such a mixed crowd, black, white, coloured and Indian.”


But things turned chaotic as they approached the City Hall and the traffic police car leading them took them into the assembled crowds on the Parade. “People surrounded us and were pushing the car and jumping on it and banging on the windows calling for Madiba. One man was on the bonnet, banging on the windscreen. They were doing it out of excitement and love for Madiba, but it was very scary and I was terrified that he could get hurt,” Sonto said.


“People were chanting ‘We’ve got him, he’s back’, and the crowd just kept converging. After what seemed to be a lifetime I knew I had to get out of there and when marshals cleared a path for us through the crowd I just put my foot down and forced my way out.


“I was happy to be driving Madiba to freedom, but you have no idea how scared I was that something could go wrong. My driving skills were tested that day and I remember thinking that if something does go wrong, it will be better for me to die with him, than to survive knowing I had been the one driving him.”


South African policeman Major General Andre Lincoln, a former commander in the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and later bodyguard to Mandela, remembers the day and his own fears about an attempt on Mandela’s life clearly.


At the time of Mandela’s release, Lincoln was working as part of a special tactical unit of the ANC’s Department of Intelligence and Security, which was still operating underground. “My brief on the day of his release was to gather intelligence, both outside the prison and on the Parade. We were dealing with a ‘what if there is someone in the crowd who might…’ scenario. Before Mandela’s release, the head of the ANC’s tactical unit came to Cape Town to establish a special bodyguard unit for him.


“Everyone thought he was walking out without protection, but the truth is there was lots of security as he stepped out of the gates of the prison that day … The last thing the government wanted was for someone to kill him,” said Lincoln. “But I was paranoid that here was our president, yet his security was in the hands of the boere – the enemy. They had shotguns, FN semi-automatic rifles and teargas. I was worried that it would take just one cop prepared to become a martyr … and to this day I sometimes look back and think about what could have gone wrong that day.”


Lincoln was one of several heavily armed ANC operatives in the crowd outside the prison, ready to spring into action if Mandela was threatened. “I was on the fringes of the crowd, behind the line of police, with an AK47 hidden under my jacket, slung down my back, and a Tokarev pistol in my belt. I expected trouble; I just didn’t know where it was going to come from. It was a huge relief when Madiba finally got into the car and he was whisked off.”


The very same fears were going through the mind of political prisoner Jeremy Vearey as he sat locked up in the prison on Robben Island watching events unfold on TV. It was the same prison off the coast of Cape Town where Mandela was incarcerated for many years.


Vearey, like Lincoln, now holds the rank of general in the South African police force. Both went on to serve as members of an elite group of highly trained bodyguards who guarded Mandela during the turbulent and dangerous years leading up to the historic 1994 elections.


“We heard from the warders that Mandela would be released the next day and on the day we sat around a TV, watching. There was no excitement and we did not share the euphoria and jubilation of those on the outside. Some of us watching believed it was a set-up and that they were going to kill him. I was worried about his security, which depended on the enemy, and feared the worst.”


Vearey said he was “hugely relieved” when Mandela finally got into the car outside Victor Verster and left. “But when they showed the huge crowds gathering at the Parade, I was worried from a safety and military point of view. And then he just disappeared and the hours dragged on, but he did not appear at the Parade. I was from Cape Town and knew how long the journey should take. We kept asking each other where he was and what they had done to him? It was a huge relief when Madiba finally appeared on the balcony of the City Hall and addressed the crowds.”


Despite having no security experience at all, Lumko Huna, a leading member of the ANC’s Reception Committee for Mandela, was put in charge of security on the day of his release.


“I was told on the day before Mandela’s release that I would be in charge of security,” Huna said in an earlier interview. “I was worried because I knew nothing about security. To tell the truth, none of us involved in security that day were qualified to be doing that job,” said Huna who, as an MK operative, smuggled ANC operatives in and out of South Africa.


Huna headed for Paarl very early in the morning on the day of Mandela’s release. “All the way there, people had started gathering along the road and on the bridges, and when I saw how many there were already I was worried. My mind was racing and I was thinking ‘Are they going to try and assassinate him?’”


At Mandela’s prison home, his then wife Winnie was insisting that he get straight on a plane and fly to Johannesburg, said Huna. “But people were arguing that he had to go to the Parade so people could see him, otherwise there would be chaos. I said nothing, but inside I hoped he would just leave, get out of Cape Town.”


As Mandela’s convoy left the prison, Huna was in the lead car, which was closely followed by Mandela’s vehicle. “My eyes were peeled looking for anything suspicious and I was terrified that something could go wrong.”


As the convoy got close to the Parade, crowds started pressing in on the convoy, Luna said. “Madiba’s car was just behind us and I watched in horror as people started swarming around it, hitting it and banging on the windows, the doors and the roof in excitement. After what seemed like an eternity, Rose [berry] managed to get out of the crowd. They left the area to regroup and returned a few hours later, entering the City Hall via the heavily-guarded rear entrance.


“When Madiba was finally safely inside the City Hall, I was extremely relieved. I remember standing on the pavement outside and thinking that the whole thing was chaotic. When I look back to that day my memories are of constant fear and apprehension and worrying about whether things would work out.”


Activist Willie Hofmeyr, then leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was in charge of security at the Parade even though, like Huna, he had no security experience. With less than 24 hours’ notice, he and other volunteers had worked through the night preparing for the rally, including designing and printing posters and pamphlets, and then distributing them. “We prepared for a normal rally, organising transport, sound systems, marshals to control the crowd…all the usual things.


“I left the office and drove into town just before noon the day that Mandela was released. I realised that this would be a huge event when I saw how many cars there were on the road to town on a Sunday morning – it was busy like on a normal working day. People turned out on a scale we had never before seen and had not thought possible. I estimate that there were well over 100 000 people on the Parade.


“The crowd was growing by the minute and our marshals, who were unarmed, formed a semi-circle in front of the steps of the City Hall to keep the area clear,” said Hofmeyr. “But the crowd kept growing and we battled to maintain our line.”


The marshals also found themselves dealing with large numbers of armed “gangsters” who had turned out in large numbers to see Mandela. “They were very aggressive about getting to the front… Soon it turned into combat as we tried to keep them at bay. Marshals were physically harassed and threatened with knives,”said Hofmeyr.


“It was not very long before our cordon collapsed and even though we were able to keep the front of City Hall secure, some gangsters managed to force their way in at the back. It was surreal, chasing gangsters through the passages of City Hall to get them out.”


With the crowds pouring in, chaos reigned as people pushed and shoved to get closer to the steps where Mandela would address them. 


“By about 2.30pm there was a massive crowd. There was a huge crush in front, with people unable to move and just being swept along by waves swirling through the crowd. It was also very hot and from the balcony we could see people passing out in the crush. The only way to retrieve them from the crowd was for them to be passed over the heads of the crowd and dragged up onto the balcony.


“On the Parade, people desperate for better vantage points had climbed the roofs of kiosks, which caved in under the weight. Scaffolding erected to allow the press a vantage point also collapsed as hundreds of people brushed marshals aside and scaled it.


“The mood was expectant and euphoric, but the crowd was getting impatient with the long delay, and we realised that people may die if we did not do something drastic,” said Hofmeyr.


“We persuaded Allan [Boesak, a priest and leading anti-apartheid activist] and Archbishop Tutu to lead people on a march to District Six, where we told them Mandela would address them. Thousands followed them and it helped a lot to dissipate the pressure of the crowd, but they all came back when they realised they’d been tricked.


“At some stage, some of the gangsters started looting a few shops at the back edges of the Parade. It became even more chaotic when the police started firing with shotguns, but the looting was brought under control fairly quickly.


“When we finally got a message that Mandela was approaching, we had a quick meeting. We decided to try and delay him as there were problems with the sound system and we did not know what would happen if he appeared and there was no sound for his speech.”


Hofmeyr managed to intercept the convoy and told them to divert to the Civic Centre and wait there until the sound system was working. But the traffic police vehicle leading the convoy instead led Mandela’s car straight into the swirling crowd in front of the City Hall. “His car was trapped in the crowd for what seemed like an age and could barely move as people were crushed against the vehicle by the crowd,” said Hofmeyr.


“Somehow the driver managed to get out and drive away. Madiba, who had not been in a crowd for 27 years, was very upset and they took him out of the city to regroup. He later had to be persuaded to return when he was finally tracked down via the radio of the traffic cops who were with him.


“We were terrified that the city was going to burn that night if he did not come back to address the crowd. By the time Madiba arrived and addressed the rally it was already becoming dark and well over half the crowd had given up and left.


“But when he finally appeared and spoke, it was like a dream come true. His speech was very dignified and considered. For me, it was a moment of complete euphoria unlike anything I had ever experienced.”





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