February 11th 1990 was a momentous day for South Africa and marked Nelson Mandela’s historic release from Victor Verster Prison. He was incarcerated for 27 years following the 1964 Rivonia Treason Trial where he and nine co-accused faced charges of sabotage against the state. Madiba went on to spend the next 27 years between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Verster where he was confined to a small cell and forced to do hard labour. However, domestic pressure, increasing calls from the international community, fear of a possible civil war and the apartheid state’s dwindling power all contributed to Mandela’s release in the early 1990s. This month marks 31 years since his release and the hope for the new South Africa that his freedom symbolised.

February 11th, 1990

The day of Madiba’s release is well known for a few anecdotes including him forgetting his glasses and having to borrow his wife, Winnie’s, and taking his daily nap in his prison cell before his release. However, far more than these charming vignettes, his leaving prison ignited hope in South Africa. He was met by over 100 000 citizens, all of whom were ready to ride the wave of change.

Madiba’s Release and the ‘Possibility of the Unimaginable’

While the promise of true democracy is always idealistic, it is undoubtedly worth reflecting on this moment in South African history. Ultimately, it paved the way to imagine the impossible. After 52 years of brutal apartheid rule and hundreds of years of white domination, this moment showed that the unthinkable could, in fact, happen. South Africa could, for the first time, become a democratic nation, where the rule of law would favour all citizens rather than a white minority.

Khalil Gogga and Nikiwe Bikitsha from the Nelson Mandela Foundation reflect on the power of this momentous occasion:

“It was through intense negotiation and, both supported and led by those who put everything on the line, that a form of democracy was made possible. There were real gains in freedom through this democracy. That democracy, our democracy, was not perfect and, like all democracies, will remain imperfect. But it is the possibility and the potential of real democracy that we should hold on to. That we should fight for. The possibility of the unimaginable.”

1981, Liberation Support Movement Poster, Canada

It is also critical to understand the strained and challenging landscape into which Mandela stepped. While many celebrated his release, others saw his exoneration through the lens of fear, viewing him as a communist terrorist who would take away their own liberties. He was thus forced to toe a tricky line and appease both his oppressors and the majority of South Africans who were dreaming of a better future. While dubbed by some as a traitor for this neutral approach, such impartiality was a necessary tool to defuse tensions and shape a more peaceful transition, void of the violence that characterised the apartheid era.

Mandela’s words still ring true

Crime and poverty continue to plague South Africa, disproportionately impacting women, sexual and gender minorities, refugees and asylum seekers, and people of colour. However, we cannot merely count this as a failure of democracy without reflecting on how the inequality of the past continues to affect the present. Gogga and Bikitsha of the Nelson Mandela Foundations argue that it can take nine generations for an impoverished family to reach the middle-class and thus, social elevation and economic upliftment will not happen overnight. We need to continue the fight for democracy.

In the closing of his release speech, Mandela quoted from his infamous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech that he gave at the Rivonia Trial. He poignantly shared:

“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.”

Rivonia Trial, Supreme Court of South Africa, Pretoria, 1964.

May Madiba’s words remind us that the impossible is, in fact, possible and that the tides of change, while sometimes obstinate and unrelenting, can and will turn. All those living in South Africa can play a part in strengthening the tenets of democracy – by calling out injustice, volunteering at social justice initiatives, or simply treating fellow human beings with respect. We all have our part to play in ensuring Mandela’s words hold true and that democracy and freedom prevail in South Africa.

Images Courtesy of NY Times archive, Wtop, The Guardian, and History.com.