In History: The day Nelson Mandela walks free

Mandela spent 18 years of his prison term on Robben Island. He was held in a small cell without any plumbing, sleeping on a mat on the stone floor. During the day he did gruelling work labouring at a limestone quarry. “Lime is a very difficult thing, you know, to dig because it is in layers. It is between layers of rock, hard rock.”

The authorities took efforts to keep him hidden from the world. Once a year he was allowed a visitor but only for 30 minutes. Despite his mother dying in 1968 and his eldest son being killed in a car crash less than a year later, he was not allowed to attend their funerals. However, he still managed to smuggle out letters and advocate for the ANC.

In 1982 he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, where the damp conditions contributed to him being hospitalised with tuberculosis in 1988. The apartheid government throughout this time periodically made offers to release him, but the freedom that was offered was always subject to government conditions, which Mandela resolutely refused. In 1989, FW de Klerk was elected South African president. The following year, he announced that he was lifting the ban on the ANC and ordering Mandela’s imminent release from prison.

On 10 February 1990, President De Klerk met Mandela to tell him he was going to be released the next day. This time it was an unconditional release. He would be a free man. But to President de Klerk’s surprise, Nelson Mandela’s response seemed muted. “I thanked Mr de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organisation could be prepared,” he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Taken aback, President De Klerk, after briefly consulting with his advisors, came back to say he would, in fact, have to insist that Mandela leave prison as planned. Mandela conceded and the two shared a drink. He walked to his freedom the next day and stepped into history. Three years later Mandela, as leader of the ANC, became South Africa’s first black and democratic president.

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