On This Day 26 Years Ago: Nelson Mandela Freed

On This Day, 26 Years Ago: Nelson Mandela Freed

One of the biggest miscarriages of justice of the 20th century was finally set right on February 11, 1990, as longtime symbol against apartheid, Nelson Mandela, was freed after 27 years behind bars in South Africa. While much of today’s generation may not necessarily recall the significance of Mandela, on this day, 26 years ago, there was much rejoicing in South Africa.

Mandela’s release was announced by then-South African president F.W. de Klerk on Feb. 2, 1990, the same day where he announced that the ANC would no longer be banned. ENCA said the announcement officially put South Africa on the path to democracy. CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was on the scene at the time when Mandela walked hand-in-hand with then-wife Winnie out of the prison that had been his home for so long.

“After 27 years, his head high and his fist clenched, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison like a chief of state flanked by his First Lady, and by the men who’d been hired to protect him,” Simon said.

Mandela had been imprisoned because he had advocated for a peaceful movement against South Africa’s institutionalized segregation and white supremacy. These conditions created the movement that became apartheid.

On this day in 1990, though, while Mandela came out proudly from the jail, South Africa also saw a great deal of violence. Chaos seemed to reign for a very long time as celebrations over Mandela’s release gave way to near-riot. Police would fire indiscriminately into the crowd in an effort to settle conditions down, but that only seemed to add fuel to the fervor generated by the crowds. By the time Mandela took the steps of City Hall in Cape Town in an effort to diminish the crazed conditions, at least two were reported dead and hundreds more injured. It was only when Mandela took the steps that the melee appeared to stop.

Mandela had been elected ANC deputy national president in 1952, and four years after he was freed, he was elected president about South Africa, thanks to the non-racist parliament that was now in power in South Africa. According to Sowetan Live, on this day, though, February 11, 1990, marked a turning point for South Africa as a whole, and thanks to de Klerk, the country was well on its way to reform, at least from a racial point of view.

According to Independent, de Klerk did not, in fact, want to play up the fact that he had the freedom of one of South Africa’s most potent symbols of the anti-apartheid movement. On February 2, 1990, — just over a week prior to the ultimate release of Mandela — de Klerk had actually planned on announcing the end of apartheid as a whole. He admitted in a later interview that he downplayed the release of Mandela in order to place greater emphasis on the fact that he was planning on ending apartheid — something he had not even announced to his parliament.

On this day 20 years ago, though, the world media was not paying attention to the ultimate banning of apartheid; they were watching Nelson Mandela take his first long walk to freedom — the first of many he doubtless enjoyed after his release.

While Mandela retired from public life in June, 2004, and ultimately died in December, 2013, at 95, the memory of the long walk to freedom he took on this day in 1990 continues to resonate in classrooms across the global community. Mandela continues to be an icon of fighting for freedom and ultimately standing up for a cause even when the odds appear to be completely stacked against you. Mandela’s ultimate freedom from jail on this day in 1990 will long remain perhaps one of the most iconic moments in history of a wrong finally getting righted.

[Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images]