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February 11, 2013

Mandela released from prison 23 years ago today

Nelson Mandela speaks at the United Nations only a few months after his release. Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo

Today, 23 years ago, ANC leader and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. His first address to his fellow South Africans, and to the world, was from the balcony of the City Hall.

He would go on to be the first democratically elected South African president, but that day, February 11, 1990 would be a day etched in the memories of millions of people.

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and a number of other political prisoners were held. Photo courtesy of flowcomm

The then State President, FW de Klerk had, in an address to Parliament nine days before, relaxed apartheid laws, announced the intention to release Mandela and he unbanned the ANC and other political parties, including the Pan Africanist Congress.

Mandela was released from the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl and was greeted by his then wife, Winnie, ANC leaders, a large crowd of well-wishers and press from across the world.

A roar went up from the assembled crowd as Mandela walked through the gates of the prison, his clenched fist raised in victory.

Mandela served most of his sentence on Robben Island, with other anti-apartheid activists, some of who would go on to serve as cabinet ministers and ANC leaders. He was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1985 and to Victor Verster in 1988, from where he would be released. 

It was a momentous occasion in South Africa's history. After decades of oppression, under a brutal government, the country was on its way to democracy.

Nelson Mandela made his first public speech from the balcony of the City Hall. Photo courtesy of Martie1Swart

While Mandela made his way to Cape Town thousands of people gathered on the Grand Parade. For the first time in decades the ANC's tricolour flag was allowed to be waved without fear. People of all races waited patiently for the man, who would play a leading role in bringing democracy to South Africa, a man who had come to symbolise the very heart of the struggle against the oppression of millions of black people.

More than 50 000 people were gathered on the Grand Parade opposite the City Hall to hear Mandela speak. They waited for hours in the hot February sun, the atmoshere electric and filled with anticipation.

When he eventually emerged on the balcony, surrounded by ANC leaders, a roar went up from the crowd, people wept with joy and many sang freedom songs. Shouts of "Viva ANC, Viva" rang through the air.

As he addressed the masses, Mandela knew, however, that his release was just the beginning of what would be a bumpy road to the first free, democratic elections, which would eventually take place on April 27, 1994.

"Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax now would be a mistake which future generations would not forgive," he said from the balcony. (Read the full speech here.)

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