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When the prison gates opened

At sixteen minutes past four on Sunday afternoon, the 11th February 1990 the prison gates opened for Comrade Nelson Mandela for the first time in 27 years. Learn and Teach was there to witness this historic moment.

There are no signs leading to the Victor Verster prison in Paarl, “home” to the world’s most famous political prisoner.

But with the sun blazing down on the heart of South Africa’s winelands, we soon find our way by following another car, a family who have come to witness Comrade Mandela take his first steps from prison after 27 years.

We drive and park on the dusty road side and begin the trek to the prison, a walk that turns out to be about three or four kilometres long. Behind and in front of us, as far as we can see, groups of people walk towards the prison gates. Some sing, others simply sweat in silence. Nobody seems to mind the walk or the sun.

On the left, we ask a young white couple standing by their car if they know what is going on down the road. Without replying, the man asks if we are journalists. When we say we are, he politely asks if he can take a picture of us with our fists raised in a clenched salute. We agree, and he pulls out a pink camera and happily snaps a shot.

There is an edge of fear in his voice as he points up the road and says there are thousands of people there. “I don’t know what is going to happen,” he says.

We tell him the people are happy and there is nothing to worry about, but our words do nothing to make him feel any better. His fear says much about the worries of so many white South Africans at this moment.

Small groups of police stand back on both sides of the road, as the people make their way towards the prison. They do nothing about the ANC and Communist Party flags that are everywhere. They are legal now, and they are flying higher than ever before.

Finally, we are there, outside the prison that has been home to Nelson Mandela for nearly two years.

Across the road, directly opposite the gates to the prison, are dozens of reporters, TV cameramen and photographers. Some have been there for weeks, staking claim to their piece of ground.

Blocking the entrance, more police. But the atmosphere is as warm as the day. The cops look happy -perhaps they are relieved, that soon they will no longer be responsible for the people’s leader.

Marshals keep everyone away from the gates. Everyone obeys. Everyone is disciplined.

And we wait… and we wait.

Mandela was supposed to have been released at about three p.m. But the hour passes. Five past three. Ten past three. Still nothing.

Freedom songs fill the dusty air. A man dressed in an animal skin does a dance in the open space in praise of Nelson Mandela, and we all cheer. Around us, bare chested young men have painted their upper bodies in the black, green and yellow colours of the ANC.

Journalists joke, and bottles of water or cooldrink are passed around. Suddenly Winnie Mandela arrives, together with senior members of the ANC and the National Reception Committee. Cameras click, and shouts of “Viva!” fill the air.

Again we wait. With the passing of each minute, the excitement grows. A marshal explains that Comrade Mandela is spending a quiet moment with his family. Half past three. Quarter to four. Four o’clock. Still nothing.

At sixteen minutes past four, someone shouts, “There he is!”. The crowd roars and pushes forward to see their hero.

Standing tall and straight, smiling and with his fist in the air, Mandela the prisoner steps beyond the gates and takes his first steps as a free man.

This is the first time that the world has seen Comrade Mandela in 27 years. He looks old, and he is much thinner than we expected. But he looks good, fit and strong. Proud and dignified.

The cheering crowd crushes toward him, journalists climb over and under a rope barricade in their rush to get the picture. A small child, sitting on his mother’s shoulders, cries with fright.

For just a moment, Mandela appears taken aback. He waves at the people who are there to greet him, and to all those millions of others all around the world who are watching this historic moment on their TV sets.

Then he turns, moves around his car, gets in, and off they go. The happy crowd, most of whom had barely caught a glimpse of their leader, sing and clap wildly.

We begin the long slog back down the road. It is still hot, and we are tired from all the excitement of the past few hours. But the walk back to the cars is not so bad. Our spirits are high and our hearts are light.

Along the highway to Cape Town, traffic slows to a crawl as dozens of youths stand in the road, raise their fists and salute the passing motorists. I put my arm out the window, and clench my fist too. But one person grabs it a little too eagerly as we drive by, and he almost breaks my arm against the window frame. From then on I keep my arm well inside.

From every highway bridge and every hilltop, people give the clenched fist salute. ANC flags fly high in the dry, hot breeze. The joy of the people seems as endless as the road stretching towards the setting sun. Long live Comrade Nelson Mandela!


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