Ten years ago today, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster prison and, beaming, raised his right fist in a power salute. The crowd roared.
For black South Africans, it was a moment of triumph. For many whites, it was a time of trepidation. But today, just as Americans remember the assassination of President John Kennedy, virtually everyone in this country recalls precisely the instant when the world's most famous political prisoner became a free man. It's hard to overstate the significance. Everyone has a misty-eyed story to tell - from the television cameraman who left his wedding reception to capture the event to the lawyer who represented Mandela.
"Feb. 11, 1990, was the culmination of decades of struggle against apartheid," recalls Rev. Alan Boesak, then the leader of the United Democratic Front, who spent hours trying to keep frenzied masses of well-wishers calm. "It was crazy, but it was glorious.... His release ... set in motion all other events that led to our reclaiming of the country."
The public had not seen Mandela since he was shipped to Robben Island. He had spent 27 years in South African jails, all the while fighting for the end of apartheid - the system of segregating blacks from whites. He emerged triumphant and went on to become the country's first black president.
Hundreds of photographers and television cameramen raced to see the man who emerged - thin, slightly grayed, and beaming - from his prison cell. "Within 20 feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts," Mandela writes in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
When a television crew thrust "a long, dark furry object" at Mandela, he feared it was a newfangled weapon developed while he was in prison. "Winnie informed me that it was a microphone."
This was the story of the decade, if not the century.
"I was at my wedding reception when I got a call, and they said: 'come to work,' " television editor Kenny Geraghty remembers. "I had to cut a piece for [CBS journalist] Dan Rather ... I hardly saw my wife for three weeks afterward. But there was no way I would have said no. We had been waiting years for that moment."
From his home in Johannesburg, lawyer George Bizos choked back tears as he watched the scene unfold on his television set. Mr. Bizos had defended Mandela and his comrades at the famous 1964 Rivonia trial. He lost that case, and dozens more that followed, as Bizos stood up again and again in valiant yet futile efforts to defend black activists.
"I had had nightmares that Mr. Mandela would die in prison," Bizos says. "His coming out was the most joyous occasion for me."
Helen Suzman, the only member of the liberal Progressive Conservative party in parliament and the lone voice of political opposition to apartheid rulers, also watched from her television. "I knew this meant a total turn-around in the political scene," she says today. "I was exhilarated. At last we would no longer be a pariah nation."
Mandela was whisked away from the prison gates to attend a planned 3 p.m. rally at the city's Grande Parade. But the anxious crowd went wild when they saw Mandela's car - surrounding the vehicle, shaking it, even jumping on top of the hood.
"It looked as though they were going to eat up that car," says Mr. Boesak. When several dozen marshals finally cleared a path, the driver sped away from the square. "Man, where are you going?" Mandela asked.
"I don't know!" he responded. "I've never experienced anything like this before."
They ended up at the home of fellow activist Dullah Omar. But soon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu phoned: Get back to the Grade Parade, he said, or "I think there is going to be an uprising."
Among thousands who waited more than six hours to see Mandela that day was Andre Odendaal, a local history professor. "I had been playing in a cricket match, but we called it off half way when we heard the news that Mandela was going to be released ... I think it must have been like Liberation Day in Europe at the end of World War II."
Dusk had fallen by the time Mandela was finally led to the top floor of a stately building to see the cheering supporters. He had forgotten his glasses in his hasty departure from prison and was forced to read his speech with a pair he borrowed from his wife.
Mandela's main point was to stress that he was a "loyal and disciplined member" of the African National Congress - something he has repeated again and again to argue that he is not a saint, just one of many who fought in the struggle.
But, like it or not, Mandela is a living legend. Ahmed Kathrada, a man who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island in 1964, says he is never annoyed that his leader is most famed for sacrificing freedom. "Some people criticize the so-called great-man theory of history," says Mr. Kathrada. "But Mandela as an individual really did play a decisive role in the history of South Africa. We are all proud."
Mandela is now deeply involved in the Burundi peace talks, but he now gets to spend more time with his family. "I scold my grandchildren when I get tired of playing with them," he said playfully this week.
He realizes that South Africans may romanticize the day of his release. But Bizos says the warm feelings people get - both black and white - whenever they think of that historic moment serves a purpose. "A legend like Mandela is important for building a nation. It is unifying. And that is something South Africa needs as it goes through these difficult times of transition."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society