The release of Nelson Mandela 30 years ago was a victory for the people, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Tuesday.
“It was not [done] out of the kindness of FW de Klerk’s heart. It was not because he felt sorry for Nelson Mandela; it was not because he was a kind-hearted man,” Ramaphosa said on the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town alongside a statue of the first democratic president.
“It was because of the pressure and the struggles that the people of our country waged to enable Nelson Mandela to be released. It was your victory.”
In 1990, Ramaphosa held the microphone when Madiba delivered his first public address in Cape Town’s city centre.
“It was here where we received Nelson Mandela and celebrated his release from prison. February 11 will forever be remembered as one of the most memorable days in the history of the world, not only in the history of South Africa.”
‘Simply magic in the air’
There was “simply magic in the air” that day, Ramaphosa recalled.
“This icon, who in every sense is a legend, had endured the unimaginable: 27 years of incarceration, torn away from his family, his community, shut away from the outside world and taken away from his organisation, first on a forsaken island in the middle of the sea and then behind the high walls of a prison compound.
“He had been taken to prison in chains while still a young man in his prime and was now returning as a 72-year-old whose health had been ravaged by the harshness of prison life,” he said.
“Given all he had gone through, it would have been understandable if he used his first speech – right here at this point where I am standing – to denounce his captors, to gloat and to call for revenge. If anyone had the right to do so, it was Nelson Mandela.”
Instead, he had paid tribute to the people of South Africa, to the international community that had campaigned for his release and to the leaders of the liberation movement, Ramaphosa pointed out.
“He repeated demands for the release of political prisoners, for the lifting of the state of emergency and for the immediate end to violence so that negotiations could commence.
“He called on white compatriots to be a part of shaping a new SA, saying uniting the people of the country was the foremost priority. President Nelson Mandela’s words that day set the tone for a country that was in the throes of upheaval and uncertainty. It was a combination of strength and modesty. It was firm but it was also reassuring,” he said.
“His words were delivered with the gravity and humility of a man whose life forever stands as a testimony to the victory of reconciliation over retribution, of the olive branch over the gun, of coexistence over conflict.”
Ramaphosa said it was easy for those who decried what Madiba did to “sit back and be critical of the leadership that he provided as he sought to mash us into a nation”.
‘Winds of change’
“The winds of change were sweeping across the land. The ANC and other liberation movements had been unbanned and the leadership were making their way home from exile. The government was bankrupt, and the economy was in freefall, rendering the state the liberation movement stood to inherit hollow and weakened.
“The right wing was mobilising and marshalling their forces of intolerance to railroad the negotiation process. Many of the doomsday prophets said it would be impossible under these conditions to bring SA back from the brink.
“And yet coming together as a nation we did, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela who had vision and foresight, who had the strength of the organisation that he led.”
Hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Ramaphosa addressed a crowd of Mandela family members, MPs, pupils, dignitaries and passers-by during the 30th anniversary commemoration proceedings.