The day in 1990 that Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, I waited hours in the hot sun outside city hall in downtown Cape Town, in a crowd of thousands of blacks and mixed-race “coloreds” dying to glimpse their hoped-for savior. Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, had been locked away in prison for more than 27 years. As it happened, the excitement of witnessing history that day was tarnished by mishaps.
The mood grew ugly because of a five-hour delay in his scheduled arrival, partly due to his wife, Winnie, who had failed to show up on time at the Victor Verster Prison, 45 minutes outside Cape Town, where Mandela was last held. Some hotheaded youths had taken to skirmishing with police around the fringes. Gunshots and tear gas were in the air, while some colored thieves were hard at work pickpocketing whites and blacks alike, even foreign journalists like myself (I lost a tape recorder ripped from my hands).
Many coloreds gave up and drifted away long before his arrival, reflecting what I assumed was their deep ambivalence over the prospect of black rule given their own minority status and frequent alignment with the country’s white minority.
Everyone in the crowd did, however, have one thing in common. No South African outside his white jailers and his fellow inmates had any idea what the 71-year-old Mandela looked like, or what he thought. Since his imprisonment in 1962, the government had banned the media from publishing his photo or words. The man so long awaited to lead his people out of the nightmare of apartheid to the promised land of democracy was a total mystery.
Would he lead a black uprising and call for the overthrow of the white minority government? Or would he continue negotiations with his former white captors for a peaceful transfer of power, talks that he had begun in 1985 from prison in secret with the iron-fisted Afrikaner president, P.W. Botha?
His first day of freedom offered one intriguing hint that he intended to make a determined effort to befriend the jittery white population. On his way to Cape Town, Mandela smiled and waved to the few whites who turned out along the road to see him. He even stopped to say hello to one very surprised white family he beckoned to come over to talk to him.
Still, I remember his debut before the nation and world as a bit of a letdown. He had never made a speech before a mass of television cameras, and the one he gave that day didn’t excite the thinning crowd so much as did just his appearance. South African blacks were simply mesmerized to behold finally the man who embodied all their hopes, while whites stared at him with trepidation and culled his words for signs of their fate under black rule.
There was, however, one near tragedy on this historic occasion. The American black civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson was apparently determined to be photographed standing next to Mandela while he uttered his first words in freedom: His car plowed through the crowd up to where Mandela was to speak, almost running over several angry blacks who tried to stop it. Rev. Jackson ended up as part of South African history that day.
I got to know Mandela over the next few days. He held his first international news conference in the well-manicured garden belonging to the official residence of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the outspoken critic of apartheid and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mandela seemed frail; we had been told he was feeling ill. Many wondered if he was up to the grueling negotiations that lay ahead.
But Mandela quickly warmed to the limelight, mixing nationalist rhetoric with assurances to the whites. His regal bearing and manners made him seem every bit the African tribal chief he was born to be, yet with the airs of a European aristocrat, a soothing soft voice and conquering smile. Most amazingly, after wasting half a lifetime in captivity that had begun by cutting stones, he evinced no bitterness toward whites.
Over the next weeks, I followed him around the country as he introduced himself to the country’s black, colored, Indian and white populations. You could feel his power and authority mounting day by day.
He needed it. Mandela had to deal with a long-suppressed black constituency that felt the day of reckoning with its white rulers was finally at hand. The favorite chant of his militant young followers was “Shoot the Boers,” the name for Afrikaners whose own hardliners took to plotting coups.
Yet Mandela never got distracted from his central goal, laboring on through four years of tough bargaining to assure black rule. At the same time, he waged a public campaign to reassure whites they were wanted and needed in a new South Africa.
Mandela’s great legacy to South Africa, indeed to the entire world, was to preach and practice reconciliation between former sworn enemies. He singlehandedly averted a civil war. And he made South Africa a shining example of how to resolve deep-seated racial and ethnic conflicts peacefully.
That legacy may not have been apparent from his less-than-memorable speech on that hot summer day almost a quarter-century ago when he first returned to freedom and sunlight. But it explains why his voice will be sorely missed by all in decades to come.
David Ottaway, the Washington Post correspondent in South Africa from 1990 to 1992 and author of “Chained Together: Mandela, de Klerk and the Struggle to Remake South Africa,” is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He wrote this for Bloomberg View.