11 February 2010

Nelson Mandela: 20 years of freedom

The symbol of freedom

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others..."

The South African History Archive salutes Nelson Mandela on the twentieth anniversary of his release from prison. His freedom on February 11, 1990, heralded a new age for democracy, turning the tide of an ongoing struggle for the eradication of institutional racism in South Africa and worldwide. After South African President P.W. Botha suffered a stroke in late 1989, he was replaced by F.W. De Klerk, who announced his intention to release Mandela at the opening of the South African parliament on February 2, 1990.

Upon his release, Mandela addressed a crowd of over 50 000 gathered outside Cape Town's City Hall. During Mandela's first public address in nearly three decades, he resisted attempts to deify his name by standing before the nation "not as a prophet but as a humble servant," committed to the "fundamental restructuring of South African society." According to Andre Brink, Mandela's re-entry into mainstream politics has forced him to "negotiate the challenge of turning a myth into a man." His deep humanity is reflected in speeches and statements made in the months immediately following his release, some of which may be found in the Original SAHA Collection (AL2457).

The struggle for freedom

"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."

Nelson Mandela spent twenty seven years in prison. First held at the Johannesburg Fort (Constitution Hill) for smaller charges, Mandela was later charged by Pretoria Supreme Court Judge Percy Yutar for both sabotage and treason. For the next eighteen years he resided on Robben Island, imprisoned in a racially segregated gaol. He was allowed one visitor every six months, and most of his letters were censored by the prison wardens. Despite this he managed to acquire a Bachelor of Law through the University of London's External Programme.

In 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. It was during his stay here that President P.W. Botha offered his conditional release if he relinquished the armed struggle. Mandela refused, rejecting this ‘freedom' as facile. He argued that "only free men" could negotiate. This rejected offer came exactly five years before his actual release. By 1988 he was moved to Victor Verster Prison (now known as Groot Drakenstein) where many restrictions were lifted, especially visitation rights. During this time he was engaged in protracted negotiations with the state for his release.

Free Nelson Mandela!

"Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose..."

Mandela remains a national symbol of dignity, discipline and perseverance. His commitment to non-racialism, equality and democracy is a testament to his humanity. For such a man, prejudice does not exist, and change is always possible. He has devoted his life to reaching the hearts of "those who are hostages of the past," attempting to help their transformation "into new men and women who shall be fitting instruments for the creation of the glorious South Africa which it is possible and necessary to realize."


Release Mandela protests. (Photographer unknown)

Release Mandela protests. (Photographer unknown)


Nelson Mandela in SAHA collections

A wide variety of research material related to Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress, and the struggle movement is available in SAHA's collections. For speeches and statements by Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other ANC icons, please see specific references in the collections listed below:

The Original SAHA Collection (AL2457):

AL2457_H5.5.3 - Assorted material on Nelson Mandela

AL2457_H5.8.1 - Speeches/statements - Nelson Mandela

This includes exclusive original copies of two statements made by Mandela in his capacity as Deputy President of the ANC:

AL2457_H30 - Release Mandela Campaign

AL2457_H31 - National Reception Committee

The Portraits of ANC leaders, including Mandela (AL2448)

Zapiro TRC Cartoon Collection (AL3129)

Mandela features specifically in the following cartoons:

  • AL3129_A20

  • AL3129_D26

  • AL3129_D30

Sunday Times Heritage Project (STHP) Collection (AL3282)

AL3282_B6.1 - SABC sound archives files, including a live report on Mandela's release 1990/02/11


Nelson Mandela: 20 years of freedom