Nelson Mandela and De Klerk

President Mandela with F.W. De Klerk Copyright World Economic Forum (

On 11 February 1990, the world’s most famous political prisoner was set free after 27 and a half years in captivity. Keith Somerville, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) who has been following South African politics for decades, discusses the event that heralded the end of white minority rule and launched a new era in a divided country.

The sight of Nelson Mandela hand-in-hand with wife Winnie, his other hand clenched and raised in a defiant salute to the crowd and cameras, is one of the dominant images of the late 20th century.

As he walked to freedom from Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, it was as though another Berlin Wall had come down, this time the brutal one of apartheid. It presaged an era of hope but also trepidation in South Africa, establishing Nelson Mandela as one of the century’s great statesmen, converting him from the liberation leader prepared to die for his beliefs into the man who led the ANC to power. He was the voice of reconciliation and builder of the rainbow nation.

That the excitement, expectations and the huge hopes of that day concealed the enormity of the task ahead of Mandela and the ANC is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that his election in 1994, his message of reconciliation and global role came to dominate reporting and analysis of his years in power, concealing the ANC’s failure to deal with many core problems in South African society and the economy.

His national and global standing boosted the feeling among, and within, the ANC that they had a right to rule, and that the Mandela magic could be used even after his death in 2013 to win elections and to justify their increasingly questionable behaviour.

But in looking with the hindsight of years at the events and hopes of 1990, one should not forget what a massive and seemingly sudden change this had been. The ANC (along with the South African Communist Party and the rival Pan-Africanist Congress) had been unbanned on 2 February in a speech by President F.W. de Klerk in the South African parliament, broadcast live on TV. De Klerk, who had succeeded the ailing and atavistic P.W. Botha the previous year, took many South Africans and the world by storm with his announcement of a new era in South African politics and the start of a process of negotiations that would lead to free elections in April 1994.

I was running the evening edition of the BBC World Service programme Newshour that evening and, luckily, had been following South African politics closely for years, first as a student, then as a member of the editorial board and a regular writer for Anti-Apartheid News, and finally as a journalist at the BBC. Those who had, like me, been following the minutiae of South African politics in the preceding six months were less surprised at De Klerk’s announcements than some, but I was still amazed at the extent of the changes.

For some time I had been aware of a shift in National Party policy and of the way that key groups like the Afrikaner Broederbond (Afrikaner Brotherhood), the military and the intelligence services, were beginning to say that apartheid was unsustainable. They wanted the National Party to start a process of change in which they could exert control and not be like Ian Smith in Zimbabwe ten years before, who tried to hold the line against a process he couldn’t stop and didn’t want.

I’d spoken to De Klerk a few months before and to Roelf Meyer, the man who would lead the National Party negotiating team. I’d also interviewed Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s long-time friend and co-leader of the ANC, just after his release from prison in October 1989, and Thabo Mbeki, the up and coming ANC mover and shaker in exile. They all said change was coming, but were all guarded about the speed and extent of the process.

Those two days in February 1990 made clear the all-encompassing nature of the process of change. The unbanning of the liberation movements, the release of Mandela and the return of ANC exiles and combatants began with a speed that indicated how much groundwork had been done before.

For four years, without prior approval from his close colleagues in prison and the ANC leadership in exile, Mandela had been talking to the National Party leadership – something that worried many ANC leaders when they became aware of it. But he refused to renounce armed struggle or make concessions in return for his release. Once he was released, he had a stronger hand because of that.

And, in a sign that he was taking control, Mandela did not leave the prison at the time appointed by the South African government. He kept the media waiting. He chose to have tea with members of his family and to ensure he was ready to come out on his terms. And we know what happened next.

Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and editor of the Africa – News and Analysis website. He made documentaries in South Africa for the BBC World Service on the start of the negotiation process and led the World Service news team at the South African elections in 1994. His book on the history of post-independence Africa, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent is published by Hurst in May 2015.