First Steps to Freedom: A Mandela Moment in Time

(Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Baltimore Sun)

It is the only historical event in modern times that literally takes my breath away whenever I see a picture of it or stop and think of it, with time itself standing still and my heart overwhelmed just in the simple act of remembering that day. No other event ever does that to me. I’m talking about the moment Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in South Africa on 11 February 1990 — today, exactly 30 years ago.

It is one of those iconic moments of the 21st century: Mandela is walking out of Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife Winnie by his side, the two reunited in freedom for the first time in 27 years. She is jubilant and holding her fist skyward, while Mandela is by turns smiling and serious, fist raised high. The security detail surrounding them is tense. Somebody hoists a young boy on their shoulders. A huge, cheering crowd awaits just outside the prison gates.

Worldwide, television broadcasts break into their regularly scheduled programs to announce the big news of Mandela’s release. The next day’s daily newspapers carry the news around the globe. The apartheid regime of South Africa could hold him behind governmental prison walls no longer. A people’s liberation could no longer be denied.

There are many iconic, unforgettable moments involving political leaders captured on film in the last century — John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, César Chávez and so many others. But Mandela’s release from prison that South African summer day of 11 February 1990, I would dare to say, stands above them all.

What made that moment in time so special? It wasn’t about Mandela’s freedom alone, of course, but about an entire people breaking the chains of bondage from European domination after hundreds of years. Mandela walked free from prison in 1990 and a mere four years later in 1994, the country’s first-ever free elections were held — electing Mandela president, of course, and paving the way for democracy in South Africa.

As for me personally: I had just returned from southern Africa — Zimbabwe, to be exact, the northern neighbor of South Africa — a few weeks before Mandela’s release and I had been fully expecting something big like this to happen any day. But my stay there didn’t work out and I left southern Africa too early, missing this moment of history in the making. As fate would have it, though, I met up personally with Mandela here in Japan just a few months later. My two brief encounters with him in Osaka rank as the high point of my life; nothing else will ever come close to topping it.

You can find evidence of the high place Mandela and South Africa occupy in my life right here within the pages of this website: past newspaper and magazine stories I have reported on the ARCHIVES page, assorted commentary on the BLOG page, political screeds on the ESSAYS page, visual records on the PHOTOS page and the occasional art review on the REVIEWS page. And I look forward to continuing that personal tradition of mine in future editions of this LifeTimes site as well.

What specifically has changed since that iconic moment of Mandela’s walk out of prison 30 years ago today? The Arabic cable TV news channel Al Jazeera published a good piece analyzing the triumphs and shortfalls that South Africa has faced since then. So much has been accomplished yet so much more remains to be done, especially economically in South Africa. The apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination in that country sowed the seeds of deep inequality that people are still struggling to overcome. In many ways, black South Africans continue to carry on the collective burden of Mandela’s long walk to freedom.

The Associated Press too covered the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s walk out of prison in a well-done report. (The AP’s original breaking news story of Mandela’s release back in 1990 also makes for some great reading…and remembering.) A full three decades since Mandela took those first steps into freedom and seven years since his passing at age 93 in 2013, Mandela still makes the news. It can be no other way.

There is also another bit of sad news to share on this day: Joseph Shabalala, lead singer of the renowned South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, passed away today in South Africa at age 78. Shabalala was the founder and lead vocalist of Mambazo, and it is fitting that Shabalala is entering the heavenly gates on this same iconic day that Mandela walked out of the prison gates exactly three decades ago.

The former Victor Verster prison from which Mandela walked out has since been renamed Drakenstein prison. A large bronze statue of Mandela (below) graces the entrance to the prison today as a lasting reminder of an iconic moment in time, attracting visitors from across South Africa and the world. The cottage on the prison grounds where Mandela spent his last years as a prisoner is now a South African national heritage site.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to live through that day, 11 February 1990, and even to touch a bit of the Madiba magic firsthand in the years following, will carry these memories on forever. This day, today, reminds us of the terrible times of the past for which many died fighting for freedom and the many challenges yet remaining on the road ahead. The freedom struggle, like the long walk of Nelson Mandela, in many ways continues for South Africa and other countries of the world.

(Photo: Google Maps)

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