South Africans Remember Mandela's Release

South Africans celebrate at a statue of Nelson Mandela outside the gates of Groot Drakenstein, formerly Victor Verster jail, outside of Paarl to commemorate Nelson Mandela's release from prison 20 years ago on Feb. 11. (Photo: STR/ AFP-Getty Images)

Twenty years ago on February 11 in South Africa, the gates of the Victor-Verster prison in Paarl opened and released Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who was being held as a political prisoner.

Across South Africa and around the world, people hit the streets to celebrate the historic event, which meant the delicate start of a new beginning for South Africa. The speech he held not much later at Cape Town's City Hall demonstrated the humility, strength and dignity the man was known for.

"We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted," Mandela said form the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall, with thousands of South Africans in front of him on The Grand Parade.

"We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts."

Mandela concluded his speech by quoting his own words from his trial in 1964, which put him behind bars for 27 years. "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Over the past 20 years, Mandela—or Madiba, as South Africans call him—has not lost his popularity, despite rarely being seen in public these days. His release remains engraved in the memories of millions of South Africans.

"In the morning we heard a man shouting, 'Mandela will be released today! Go to the Grand Parade! Mandela is walking free today!'" Glenda Nevill from Cape Town remembers. "I hadn't expected to see such an event in my lifetime. Apartheid seemed invincible. Civil war seemed imminent."

Fiona Zerbst from Rustenburg says her memories about Mandela's release and speech are a bit hazy. "I remember him walking ... and walking ... very slowly ... and the TV cameras fixed on him. It's more an impression than a memory, really. It felt a bit surreal. Our entire household was transfixed. There was a real sense of something monumental happening."

"His release and his speech, it's almost impossible to put into words really what it was like," Jennifer Crocker remembers. "Rumors were flying that he wouldn't come because of the security risk, but then finally he did. I can't put into words what it meant to hear him speak."

Nevill confesses that she was a bit fearful about Mandela. "We didn't 'know' him. I was nervous, as he had every right to loathe and detest anyone with a white skin. So there was an element of fear, but there was hope too, hope that he would be able to bring justice to our society. Mandela still is South Africa's conscience, our ideal, and the person we aspire to emulate. We believe in him still. It's the idea of him and his great strength and morality and fierceness of belief that still tries to bind us together as a nation."

Christopher Szabó from Pretoria agrees. "Mandela was able to do two things I admire. He was able to accept help from the East Block without subscribing to their ideology, and he was able to put the country's needs ahead of his personal feelings after release from prison."

Zerbst does not believe South Africa will explode in a burst of flames after Mandela's death. "Madiba has symbolic value. If he had died, say 10 years ago, I would have been concerned about the effects on South Africa. I think we will mourn his death bitterly, but then go about our business."

Being only five years old when Mandela was set free, Helena Sheridan from Cape Town does not remember February 11, 1990. Nevertheless, she sees Mandela as one of the most important South Africans ever. "Mandela's vision and philosophies were revolutionary," she says. "The fact that he showed so much respect, acceptance and tolerance to the Afrikaners after everything the Apartheid regime had done to him and his people, takes an amazing personality. So thank you, Tata Madiba, for serving your nation as politicians are supposed to do."

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