The Kentucky Airport Hotel in Harare must be one of the dreariest places in the world to celebrate an earth-shaking event like Nelson Mandela's release. But that's where I was when it happened.
It was 11 February 1990 and I was alone in the bar at one of the Zimbabwean capital’s more dodgy hotels, with only a barman to share one of the greatest days in modern history – to watch as Madiba raised his clenched fist to the African sky.
Like most parts of my life in the late 80s and early 90s, there were two reasons for being in Zimbabwe: my “legend” and my “reality”.
The “legend” was the official reason, the reason I would give family and friends (and the authorities, were they to ask) for spending time in Harare. It was fairly simple: the media organisation that I ran, The Other Press Service (Tops), had sent me to Zimbabwe to run a training course for church workers from east and southern Africa. I was there to teach a group of Angolans, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and Malawians how to use new “desktop publishing” technology to produce their own newsletters and propaganda pamphlets.
The “reality” was a bit more complex: I had been recruited into the ANC and SACP five years earlier, and was part of a two-man propaganda unit that distributed liberation pamphlets in Johannesburg, while also producing our own propaganda for illicit distribution. I was in Harare to be briefed and debriefed, to learn new skills and to share with my handler the response to recent developments back home.
Those “developments” were exciting: a few months earlier, in October 1989 – in what was to be a dry run for the release of Mandela – several of our senior leaders on Robben Island had been set free. Walter Ulyate Sisulu and several other senior leaders had been released by the apartheid regime to test the waters and gauge the popular response to a slight loosening of state control.
And the popular response was phenomenal.
I attended a rowdy celebration at Uncle Tom’s Hall in Soweto on the night Sisulu and his comrades were released and was in awe of them, and of the reception they received from the community. At times our struggle veterans seemed completely overwhelmed by the extent of the celebration, perhaps not realising just how significant it was to those who had fought inside the country for their release.
That night they were received by what was primarily a “UDF crowd”, with activists from all walks of the United Democratic Front, although I sensed there were more than a handful of Umkhonto weSizwe members, still underground, in the crowd.
Proof of this came two days later when one of the people I’d seen at Uncle Tom’s Hall approached Tops to produce Umkhonto pamphlets for a celebratory rally at FNB Stadium. We worked together on our propaganda, explaining to the masses that this was the first sign that the regime was really buckling, and that we should intensify the struggle to ensure the release of all our leaders – including Madiba.
It had never felt so good, placing MK logos on the front, back and sides of a pamphlet.
At the same time, through my involvement in UDF media structures and the ANC reception committee’s publicity team, I ensured I was appointed a marshal at the rally itself, and able to serve a dual purpose inside the stadium, managing the crowd and distributing pamphlets.
There, too, the response was almost overwhelming. More than 80,000 people filled the stadium that day and, despite the fact that our liberation movements were still banned, our team distributed thousands of ANC flags and posters turning the stadium into a sea of black, green and gold.
ANC lives, ANC leads”, the posters said. And there was no doubt the ANC did live, and did lead, in the hearts of South Africans, despite decades of being banned. The release of Sisulu and others that October 1989 showed just how much support the movement had among our people.
The unbanning of the ANC and SACP, announced on 2 February 1990, was a momentous occasion. As news broke, our UDF and underground ANC networks mobilised like wildfire. It was pre-cellphone and SMS, so we used pagers to mobilise comrades across the entire city. Within minutes, buildings which housed church workers, community groups, Sayco activists and the alternative media emptied as we took to the streets of the new Johannesburg.
I had an old Soviet flag I had brought back from a trip to Europe and it was quickly taken to the front of the toyi-toying crowd that swept through the streets of the city.
There were at least 5,000 of us in a completely spontaneous act that was part-celebration and part-defiance. Our organisations were unbanned, but the police were still armed and their police dogs still had teeth as we found when we ventured too close to the barricades.
A key moment – ironic and iconic – same when a Soweto Youth Congress leader and friend, emboldened by the news that had broken that morning, urged us all to defy the police and to “seize control”. Quite what he meant, I will never know for, when the police eventually lost patience and let their dogs loose, he was the first to head for the safety of a nearby building. I guess we were all rather over-confident that day.
I took news of these sentiments and other developments, when I travelled to Harare a few days later. In my discussions with my handler, it was clear the release of Sisulu and his comrades had increased our sense that victory was no longer a dream.
The unbanning of our organisations made us realise that victory was possible, and possible in our lifetime. Madiba’s release, on 11 February, was the cherry on top of four months of intense political activity – in a sense, the third and most decisive victory for our liberation movement cadres inside the country in the space of a few months.
I wish I could have been at home to witness Madiba’s release live or, at least, to watch it on TV at home, with a few comrades.
Either way, as I sat saying my small “amandla” in the bar of the Kentucky Airport Hotel, what happened on the 11 February 1990 made me realise that victory was certain. In fact, in part, it was already there. DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí