Waiting for Mandela
AFP PHOTO / Alexander Joe
By Alexander Joe
I got to Cape Town on February 10, 1990 to cover Nelson Mandela’s release from Pollsmoor Prison, scheduled for the next day. The government had distributed a picture of him with South African President F.W. de Klerk, but I didn’t really trust it because I knew Mandela had changed from the stalky man in the photo to someone far slimmer. I filed the picture anyhow, but suspected political games were being played.
The following morning we drove to Pollsmoor at 6:00 to set up opposite the prison. I picked my spot in a patch of gravel and did not move an inch – not even to go to the toilet – until Mandela emerged 10 hours later.
As I was waiting, I thought for some reason of the 1955 movie The Birdman of Alcatraz, the story of a convict who spend his entire adult life in federal penitentiaries in the United States, mostly in solitary confinement.
And suddenly, there he was. This remarkable, intelligent man, despised by the few as a terrorist, revered by the many as the moral force destined to vanquish apartheid. There he was, coming forth from the darkness of his cell to give people, so many people, so much hope. And there WERE many people, thousands of blacks and coloureds, who had come to greet him.
Nelson Mandela rides in car through cheering fans as exiting from Victor Verster prison upon his release, 11 February 1990. (AFP PHOTO / Alexander Joe)
After taking pictures like crazy, we saw the crowd go crazy too, just wanting to touch him, to shake his hand. One person began to run, and suddenly it was chaos. Mandela was bundled into a car. I took pictures through the window as he sped off, and then dashed back to Cape Town to file.
I remember the smile, that amazing smile. I had the impression that he mesmerised the crowd, but was mesmerised by it too. He must have known he was popular, and he planned to make a speech on the square in Cape Town. But he was likely expected a simple media event when he exited the prison, not a sea of people come from miles around to see his deliverance. For me, it was unbelievable. I had always thought, ‘never in my lifetime’. I was sure that he was going to die in prison. Apartheid was such a gruesome thing; I had known it from an early age, as we had something similar in Rhodesia.
Thousands of Sowetans hope to see Mandela on February 12, 1990, the day after his release. (AFP PHOTO / Alexander Joe)
And yet, here he was in the flesh, the man we had heard so much about, walking freely – and free – in front of me, walking with his wife Winnie, holding hands. When he came out I was looking for that famous head with his hair parted in a distinct manner, but he had changed. He was in a suit, a blue greyish suit. The man, too, had greyed.
But there was the smile, that amazing smile. It wasn’t just glowing, it was electric.
I never budged from my spot for 10 hours, nor did the other photographers with whom I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m sure we all thought about going to the toilet, but nobody dared. Media had come from all over the world, but in those days there were no satellite dishes or mobile phones, just a lot of step ladders because no one had thought to build a ramp for the photographer and TV cameras. It was the first time I had been to South Africa, and I had entered the country only ten days earlier. Before that, I had never been allowed in the country. I was puzzled, watching the very Afrikaner presenters for the South African broadcaster doing their very pro-Mandela reports. It seems so ironic, and strange.
When AFP called me in Harare and asked me to cover Mandela’s release, I said ‘guys, I am never going to get a visa.’ But I went to the embassy and filled in the forms. One hour later the embassy called to tell me that I needed to apply for a work permit. I didn’t understand, and told the person on the other end of the line that I did not plan to live in South Africa, that I was only going for a couple of days. I got the visa.
And as it turned out, I did wind up living in South Africa.
Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raise their fists and salute cheering crowd upon Mandela's release from the Victor Verster prison near Paarl. (AFP PHOTO / Alexander Joe)