Feb 11, 2009 – Nineteen years ago today, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years and five months in prison. The whole world watched him walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison, but few people know the detail of his first day of freedom.
After retiring late that night at Bishopscourt, the official residence in Cape Town of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mr Mandela woke before dawn – a prison habit. At 4am he telephoned Trevor Manuel (now Finance Minister), then an activist central to his release programme, rousing him from a deep and welcome sleep after 48 hours on the go. The urgency? He wanted to know where his weights were so he could continue with another prison habit – exercising.
Later that day Mr Mandela and his comrades sat on chairs under a tree in the garden of Bishopscourt and held a press conference, the first time he had legally spoken to journalists in nearly 30 years. He said that before he answered the first question from the eager crowd of local and international media, he wanted to thank them.
“It was the press that kept the memory of those who had been imprisoned for offences committed in the course of their political activities,” he said. “It was the press that never forgot us and we are, therefore, indebted to you.”
Later that day Mr Mandela boarded a plane to Johannesburg, but he did not immediately return to his house in Soweto, owing to security concerns. He stayed at the home of Sally Rowney, after she was asked to host him by the National Reception Committee, in the suburb of North Riding that night and arrived home in Orlando West only on Wednesday February 13.
In the small garden of the home he had left when he went underground in March 1961, Mr Mandela continued to demonstrate his characteristic friendliness and openness to the media. He indulged numerous journalists from around the world, some using technology he had never seen, and gave each a full interview.