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The day the world changed

BY Owei Lakemfa
TWENTY years ago when  dawn broke on South Africa, that February 11, 1990 morning, it also did  for the rest of humanity.  On that day the world  bade good bye to racism as an official government policy . That   policy which had classified men, women and children on the basis of their skin finally crumbled when the world’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela emerged from jail after 27 years.

But this was a prisoner that was not in a hurry to leave and had engaged in heated negotiations with the country’s president on the date he preferred to leave the jail house. Five years earlier, then President Pieter Willem Botha had gone before parliament to offer Mandela freedom provided  he rejected the use of violence as a political weapon.

Mandela felt it was like the devil tempting Jesus Christ. He sent a  public response which his daughter Zinzi read at the Jabulani Stadium in Soweto on February 10, 1985. He asked the apartheid government to renounce violence by dismantling the evil system telling it: “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… I cannot give an undertaking”.

The Mandela journey to prison  began in 1962.He had told the court: “Why is it that in this court room I am facing a White magistrate, confronted by a White prosecutor, escorted by White orderlies? Can anybody honestly and seriously suggest that in this type of atmosphere the scales of justice are evenly balanced?” He was sentenced to three years for inciting people to go on strike and two years for travelling out of the country without a passport.

One year later his treason trial began where the state asked for his life along with those of other anti-apartheid activists, including Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaldi and Dennis Goldberg.

Rather than fight for his life, Mandela in open court declared: “I have cherished the ideal of a free and democratic society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal  I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

The huge protests in the country and avalanche of international appeals and condemnation, including from Soviet  Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev, American and British parliamentarians, forced the regime to back away from the death sentence and award life sentence.

Over the years, the leading Western nations, including Britain and America viewed the freedom fighters in South Africa, including Mandela as terrorists;  they resisted the international imposition of sanctions against the evil regime.

South Africa even went on to acquire  nuclear weapons while destabilizing and attacking neighbouring African countries. Apart from carrying out massacres of the African and coloured people, the regime spread its terror abroad.

In one of its most infamous acts, it sent a letter bomb to leading activist, Ruth First in her exile home in Maputo, Mozambique. It killed  First who was the wife of another leading anti –apartheid activist, Joe Slovo.

Twenty years ago when the earth-shaking release of Mandela was being perfected, only a handful of people knew how he looked like. His photograph which was hugged across the globe and adorned many homes and posters was that of 1962 when he was in hiding.

Now 28 years later, he was an old man, and with no photographs  available, there were speculations of how he now looked.

Ironically, the hope of a speedy, peaceful collapse of the  well-armed and well-funded evil apartheid system, and the rise of an independent South Africa where all will be equal irrespective of race, age, ideology or gender, seemed to rest on the shoulders of this man who has one of the most famous names in history, but a virtually unrecognisable face.

Mandela was like a nuclear bomb in the sense that even as an old  man, if anything untoward happened to him, the entire country might explode. Although he was just a tree in the forest, it seemed that the South African forest was incomplete without him.

He appeared to be the key to  the peaceful resolution to the 75-year anti-apartheid struggle of the people. Even at this time, not many were favourably disposed to having  talks with the regime, not even  the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) Mandela had to put his entire reputation and years of suffering at risk for. He told himself:

“There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way”.

When finally, the then apartheid South African President Frederick Willem de Klerk offered him unconditional freedom, Mandela demanded that it be delayed for one more week and refused to be flown to Johannesburg and released there.

Rather he wanted to walk out of the prison gates. He said of these negotiations about his release: “It was a tense moment and, at that time, neither of us saw any irony in a prisoner asking not to be released and his jailer attempting to release him”.

On that February 11 day, the world seemed to have stood still as the legend walked out of prison; a free man after 27 years in one of the most notorious prison systems in human history. The world struggled to see what he looked like as he raised his right clenched fist in victory.

Twenty years after these earth-shaking events, Mandela’s profile continues to grow. This year, the United Nations set aside his birthday to be commemorated eternally. In venerating  Mandela, the world is also honouring the heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle particularly those who did not live to see freedom day such as Robert Sobukwe, Ruth First, Solomon Mahlangu, Bram Fischer and the children of Soweto whose blood watered the tree of freedom.


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