The chaos behind scenes of jubilation two decades ago


WHAT REALLY happened behind the scenes as Nelson Mandela was released from prison 20 years ago was revealed yesterday as members of his African National Congress reception committee shared their memories at a commemorative event at his former jail.

Hundreds of guests were treated to stories from members of the reception committee about the chaos surrounding Mandela’s release after 27 years in jail.

The guests, who were attending an arranged breakfast in the grounds of Drakenstein Prison, where the commemorative “freedom walk” would later take place, were told of how fearful the committee was that Mandela would be a assassinated once free, and how amateur-like their approach to the event was.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the head of Mandela’s reception committee, said they were given only 24 hours’ notice to make arrangements for Mandela’s release, and they were wholly unprepared for the necessary security precautions.

“We were unprepared. We appointed a Catholic priest as head of security, and he told us to go home and put on your best suit, and to look like we were security guards. So on the day you had people in suits walking around with a hand inside their jackets pretending to have guns,” he said, to much laughter.

Ramaphosa said committee members travelling in the car behind Mandela lost sight of him, which led to widespread panic.

“We lost Madiba [Mandela’s clan name] on the way to Cape Town in the car. We had no clue where he had gone; it was police from the old regime who came up to us and asked whether we wanted them to show us where he was,” he said.

Trevor Manuel, the current head of the government’s national planning commission, said they did not want the help of the security forces, and eventually tracked Mandela down to a house in Rondebosch, a Cape Town suburb.

“Madiba had his shoes off; he was drinking tea, chatting to the family. But we had to take him back [to city hall],” said Manuel, second in command of security on the day. Whitey Jacobs told reporters that the normally unflappable Mandela was initially taken by surprise by the size of the crowd that awaited him outside Victor Verster prison.

Despite having spent almost three decades in prison, when Mandela got his first glimpse of the mass of people awaiting him he asked nervously, “‘Where are the police?’ He was excited from the first moment, but there was also panic in his voice.”