Archives: Mandela released - 'Our march to freedom is irreversible'

Nelson Mandela's imprisonment personified the racial struggle in South Africa. His freedom initiated the end of apartheid.

By Andrew V. Pestano

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Twenty-five years ago, on Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison after more than 27 years. His confinement personified the racial struggle in South Africa. And his freedom initiated the end of apartheid.

He would remain a symbol of freedom until his death in 2013.


Coverage of his release from the UPI archives captured the exuberance of the day. Here are some highlights:

Upon release, Mandela traveled about 50 miles from Victor Verster prison to Cape Town, South Africa, where he stood in front of a crowd of about 40,000, raised a clenched fist and shouted ''Amandla" – "Power" in the Xhosa and Zulu languages.

''Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future," he said. "Our march to freedom is irreversible."

Until his release, an entire generation of black South Africans had neither heard Mandela speak, nor seen him, relying on a color portrait sketched from recollections of his visitors, and decades-old photographs. But they knew why he was in prison.


Born a prince and set to become the chief of his tribe after his father died, he rejected his right to royal chieftainship. Living up to his traditional tribal name Rolihlahla, which means "stirring up trouble," he was expelled from the University of Fort Hare in 1940 for participating in a student strike.

He went on to join the ANC, a political group working to end the apartheid system of racial separation established in South Africa in 1948. The group was later banned.

In 1961, Mandela helped found Umkhonto we Sizwe – Zulu for ''Spear of the Nation'' – a military wing to force change through sabotage. He said its creation was "a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid."

He was captured in 1962 disguised as a chauffeur after evading police for more than a year. He and seven other defendants were later sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government.

Mandela held true to his conviction that violence had been spawned by the state and refused an offer of release in 1985 in exchange for renouncing violence. He also rejected the idea of black dominance.

"We call on our white compatriots to join us in the making of a new South Africa. This freedom movement is the political home for you, too," he said during his first speech upon release. "We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. To relax our effort now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive."


Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president in May 1994. He served for one term and spent the rest of his life fighting for human rights and many other causes. He died at his home in Johannesburg on Dec. 5, 2013.

On Feb. 2, 1990, nine days before Mandela's release, former South African President Frederik de Klerk paved the way for apartheid's demise after he unbanned the ANC and eased a 43-month state of emergency.

The news was not well-received by all of South Africa. Tens of thousands of white supremacists launched protests before and after Mandela's release.

Swastikas and Nazi flags were raised. A black doll was seen with a noose around its neck.

"Hang Mandela!" some shouted.

But as Mandela walked free, the excitement in South Africa could not be contained.

Hundreds of thousands lined the streets to greet Mandela. At least 25 people were injured when a roof loaded with spectators collapsed.

Mandela was greeted by about 100,000 people upon his return to his hometown of Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

''Our struggle against apartheid, though seemingly uncertain, must be intensified on all fronts,'' Mandela declared to a excess capacity crowd of about 85,000 in a stadium in Soweto. ''Let each one of you and all of our people give the enemies of peace and liberty no space to take us back to the dark hell of apartheid.''


Thousands of black South Africans danced in the rain.

"Viva Mandela!" they chanted.

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