Hundreds of thousands of people waited to see and be addressed by Comrade Nelson Mandela outside the City Hall in Cape Town on the day he was released. It was a long, hot wait, but it was a privilege to be there.
The mood among parts of the crowd is beginning to turn sour in the heat.
Posters all over Cape Town had advertised that Comrade Nelson Mandela would address the people at three o’ clock. Hundreds of thousands of people watch that time come and go. Organizers promise he will come.
The square across from the city hall is jam-packed with people. Everywhere, ANC flags and banners. Anywhere there is space to get some height — on traffic lights, a statue, roof tops — people have climbed up. The branch of a tree on which youths have been perched like birds snaps and comes crashing down, injuring some of them.
By the time we arrive, the crowd in front of the podium where Comrade Mandela is to speak is so thick that it will be impossible for his car to get there. Some are fainting in the crush and need medical attention.
As time drags, people get restless. Suddenly, trouble. A group of youths begin smashing shop windows and help themselves to bottles of drink. The riot police appear, and blaze the youths with birdshot. People dive to the ground for cover.
Fearful of being trampled underfoot, we run with the human tide towards the edge of the square. We later learn one person was shot dead. Dozens of others are hurt.
The sirens of ambulances can be heard above the noise, as they inch their way through the masses.
Still no sign of Comrade Mandela. There are no announcements explaining why. People say the sound system has died.
It is already just about dark when shouts of “There they are!” and “Viva! Mandela!” fill the air.
Comrade Mandela, his wife Winnie and others arrive in three or four cars. Instantly, hundreds of people surround them. They simply leave the vehicles in the middle of the street and make a dash for the side door, followed by a mass of chanting, happy bodies.
Word that the Comrade Leader has arrived blows across the square within seconds, as if driven by the strong Cape wind. At the far end of the square, people immediately begin pressing towards the podium.
The threat of violence has gone, and tension gives way to joy and expectation. Comrades Mandela and Sisulu appear on the balcony, together with the other leaders. The moment everyone has spent so much time waiting for has come. The crowd roars.
Comrade Sisulu calls for silence. Comrade Mandela, under the glare of yellow television lights, begins his first public speech in 27 years.
Above him, a huge ANC flag flutters. In front of him, a SACP flag. His strong voice carries over the square.
“I stand here before you not as a prophet,” he says, “but as a humble servant of you the people.”
What beautiful words, after all those years separated from his people. We are not ashamed to admit that there are tears in our eyes.
Comrade Mandela’s speech is hard-hitting and fresh — in true Mandela style. He calls for the intensification of the struggle against apartheid on all fronts, including the armed struggle.
He talks of fallen comrades, of the great suffering caused by apartheid, of freedom, and of justice. He ends by repeating the words from his historic speech from the dock in the Rivonia Trial in 1964:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Comrade Winnie Mandela takes over and leads the huge crowd in the singing of the anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica. The melody fills the air, her voice rising out strong and steady.
Suddenly it’s all over. Thousands of men, women and children begin leaving. Their departure is orderly, disciplined and happy. It has been a day whose importance is beyond words in the long struggle against racist oppression. An ugly chapter in the history of both South Africa and humankind has been closed.
Down Table Mountain, a strong wind sweeps into the city, as if nature herself is trying to lend a hand in blowing away the great injustice that has gripped our country for so long.