Twenty years ago today, Nelson Mandela walked free. I was twenty-one, and had lived my entire life under a repressive regime that legally sanctioned the artificial separation of blacks and whites, and the oppression of the former. It is hard to describe how we felt on 11 February 1990. Weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were shaking off a blanket that settled over us all, shutting out the light.
As Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, South Africa walked from night into day. We looked at each other and saw not blacks and whites, but people. He represented the hope of a whole nation that finally we could look into each others’ eyes and see our common humanity.
The day was one of jubilation and joyous disbelief. We literally couldn’t believe what we were seeing. There he was! On a hot February afternoon, literally walking out of jail, and the government that we despised had allowed it. After so many years of oppression, the facade of apartheid, the edifice, was crumbling. Like Berliners knocking down the Wall the previous year, we South Africans felt as if we were making and watching history. We were part of one of the century’s miracles. We looked at each other, and wept.
Madiba is a great hero. He went into jail a freedom fighter and emerged, 27 years later, as a statesman who spoke peace and reconciliation, ready to lead his country into the future. And we followed.
Here’s his first interview with the world’s press: