The day they nearly ditched Nelson Mandela

I got there early to get a decent place to watch The Moment. The world had not even seen a picture of him for 27 years. What did he look like now? Would he be the dignified, brave leader who had stood in the dock of the Supreme Court on trial for his life in April 1964 and declared himself ready to die for his principles? Or a crushed old man, willing to compromise with the apartheid Government to allow him to spend the last years of his life with his family? Few knew for sure.

I spent that day, February 11, 1990, at the gates of Victor Verster prison, a few miles from Cape Town in a beautiful wine-growing valley surrounded by mountains under a brilliant blue sky. A huge, unruly crowd waved flags and chanted slogans, baiting aggressive, anxious police, more used to shooting at crowds than containing them. But they were held back by the calm marshals of the African National Congress, only recently unbanned.

It was a long, hot day. When The Moment came late in the afternoon, the ecstatic crowd pushed forward, the marshals with them and the police tried to force them back. So I barely saw Nelson Mandela when he appeared with his wife, Winnie, and ANC officials and raised a defiant fist to the crowd. Had I been a photographer, not a writing journalist, I would have been sacked. I caught a glimpse of him as he re-emerged in a large black Mercedes, which sped off under police escort. Then I ran for my car and raced to Cape Town to call my news desk — no mobile phones in those days. Crowds lined the roads nearly all the way, most celebrating but a few threw stones or spat at any car driven by a white person.

Then came the second long wait: at the town hall. Another vast crowd gathered under the balcony where Mr Mandela was to speak. Would this be like Iran in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini was swept along the streets of Tehran by the crowds and straight into power? But this crowd — there were very few white people in it — was friendly, patient and expectant, waiting more than two hours in the tightest crush I have been in.

The second greatest danger was losing your footing and being trampled to death. The greatest danger was the moody, thuggish police hanging around at the back. As the sun went down they became bored and started shooting. I heard screams as someone was hit. Four people died that evening and more than 100 were injured. The crowd panicked and swayed but it was locked together and stayed peaceful.

I have never heard a convincing account of that delay. Mr Mandela did not go straight to the town hall as expected. He went off to a suburb where some say that an argument broke out over what he should — or should not — say. The ANC was a very disciplined organisation and Mr Mandela said repeatedly that he was its loyal servant. No one, not even he, was allowed to take personal initiatives. But he had already taken some, the most daring being to meet President P. W. Botha and President F. W. De Klerk, as well as other government ministers including the dreaded head of security, Niel Barnard. Dr Barnard had knelt and tied Mandela’s shoelace when he first met President Botha. Mr Mandela was not allowed shoelaces in prison, and had forgotten how to tie them.

When news of these meetings, unauthorised by the ANC in exile, had emerged the previous year, Thabo Mbeki then the chief ANC spokesman, and Freni Ginwala, its representative in London, discreetly warned journalists that “something may have happened to Madiba [as he is known] while he was in prison”. They said that he might no longer be speaking for the movement. They were preparing us, in case they had to ditch him.

So when the delay happened at the town hall in Cape Town that afternoon, I wondered if they would ever allow him to emerge to speak to us at all. Eventually he did, with Winnie at his side. The speech was textbook ANC speak, written in Marxist language, calling for the continuation of the armed struggle and international sanctions on South Africa. There was only the tiniest shift in tone, offering talks about a negotiated settlement if the state of emergency was lifted.

Margaret Thatcher, watching it on TV in Downing Street, was so angry that she phoned Sir Robin Renwick, the British Ambassador in South Africa, to berate him, asking why she had put all that effort into securing Mr Mandela’s release when he turned out to be a hardline communist, making no concessions whatever.

The next morning journalists from all over the world set up their gear in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s garden and we watched Nelson and Winnie walk slowly hand in hand down through the flower beds and arches of roses. This was the stuff of songs and dreams. People had set this moment to music. Suddenly, there it was — reality. Mr Mandela sat down stiffly behind the thicket of microphones. Cameras flickered and everyone was silent, pens poised. He spoke; slow, clear, direct, infinitely polite and reasonable.

He got tough questions and made no commitments other than to enter talks with the Government once the conditions were met. What we all saw was that he was not just a spokesman given a text by the ANC. He was, after all, the real leader. He greeted a South African journalist whom he had known before he was imprisoned. Others he seemed to know from their bylines. He had clearly kept up with the media in recent months. At the end he thanked us and rose. Then something happened that I have never seen before or since from the press. We all spontaneously stood up and clapped.

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.