South Africa was on the boil in the cauldron that diehard white nationalist politicians had perpetuated.
The white oppressors, through President FW de Klerk, had finally recognised that the time had come to throw in the towel.
No doubt they were seeking more than they eventually got from the negotiations of the early 1990s,
but they had not reckoned with the intellect and graciousness of the dynamic Nelson Mandela.
Add to that their innate fear and suspicion of anything different to the narrow political culture that created
the ‘baaskap’ mentality and practices that alienated them from black people. Their fear was unfounded.
For the man who would emerge from Robben Island and then walk free from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl,
into the glare of an expectant world, was a man with a heart big enough to embrace the universe.
With his characteristic broad smile and familiar wave, he walked into the streets of Cape Town a free man – and the world stood still, awaiting perhaps an avalanche of unknown proportions.
Instead, what they witnessed was the beginning of one of the greatest journeys of reconciliation in history.
That February day in 1990 is a day that will forever seem
like a tidal wave of beauty had been unleashed on the southern tip of Africa,
in the Cape of Good Hope, washed ashore from the turreted and barbed wire fortress of Robben Island.
Those of us who were privileged to be part of this moment of history surely never fully realised the magnanimous and politically savvy nature of this man. He was an icon, of course, when he was released.
Mandela saw only possibilities and the richness of our land, yearning to share in the life-giving waters of freedom.
Now, as the greatest statesperson ever produced by South Africa, he is rightly memorialised annually on his birthday – a testament to a greatness that some of the current leaders in the political parties on our landscape regularly, and repeatedly, fail to emulate.
But the icon now lives on, a lodestar for all. When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison,
he was, at the same time, emerging from a collective leadership that had been able to strategise together and workshop with one another in a closeness that may not have been possible outside the walls of a prison.
Not that they wished to be there – and it is important, speaking as someone who spent time on Robben Island,
that South Africans should not romanticise the island prison. It was an awful, dreadful place of severe hardship.
I was among a group who arrived on Robben Island in 1963, before the arrival of Madiba.
We were put to building the very cells in which Mandela would live for nearly three decades of his life.
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