While the day has become a footnote in the history of the country for those who lived through the early 90s, it was possibly one of the most memorable moments of their lives.
The 1994 elections brought an official end to the ruthless reign of the apartheid era, and in many ways, the election was ceremonial. It was a moment to enjoy and cherish.
Mandela’s release, on the other hand, was something else entirely. As a country in the grips of a civil war, Mandela’s release flooded South African hearts with relief and joy; or terror, depending on where your allegiance was during the civil war.
Nelson Mandela, let us not forget, without saying a word to the outside world for some 27 years as he served his sentence on Robben Island, had become elevated to mythical status.
“Free Nelson Mandela” was the rallying cry of the protesters in townships and opponents of apartheid around the globe alike.
So when it was announced that he was to be released, that was the victory in the civil war. In a decades-long struggle against the apartheid regime, the end was finally in sight.
On 11 February 1990, Mandela left Victor Verster prison. Several hours later, he made his way to the podium at the Grand Parade grounds outside Cape Town’s city hall.
There, 100 000 people waited to hear the voice that had been silenced for 27 years too long. Most of the gathered crowd had never heard Mandela speak before. In a speech frequently drowned out by the roars from the crowd, Mandela said:
“Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people. Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognise that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our decisive mass action. We have waited too long for our freedom.”