I remember it as a clear day. Sunny, not hot, not windy, just crystal clear blue skies. The rumor mill had it that he would be released on that day. It had been building up for a while. But no-one knew for sure.
I was on campus at the University of Cape Town when it happened. Word spread quickly. He’s out. Really out. They actually let him go. We had no internet or video phones back then, just word. We did not see him walk along that dusty road to freedom until later. But we all just knew. And we knew that he would next be driven to Greenmarket Square, the central square in Cape Town, for all of us to welcome him.
We rushed to our cars and to trains and raced into town. Somehow we all managed to find parking above the central train station and trotted across the road to the square. We were early so we got a great spot, about 10 meters from the Town Hall balcony where speeches were given.
Over the next couple of hours or so the square filled up. People of all walks of life, of all races and ages were coming together. This was unlike any event in Apartheid South Africa, for once the people were coming together.
Up the side roads leading into the city were the riot police and the army. The big water cannon that fired purple dye were in front. Lined behind them like a bunch of deadly turtles were the big armored trucks that the police and army used to shoot people from. Big men with big guns filled the gaps. They were preparing for war.
As the crowd grew, the noise grew. Not with screaming or slogan shouting, not even song. The murmurs of voices in wonder that this day had come, and that all these people had come.
Finally, a few old men walked out on the stoop of the Cape Town Town Hall. They had been released earlier and we recognized them. The crowd quieted in anticipation.
It felt like there were a million people in that square on that day at that time. But it was silent. No coughs or fidgeting sounds, no wind, even the birds seemed silent. We waited patiently.
A smallish older man slowly walked out to join the group before us. None of us had ever seen him. We did not know his face. But we all knew him. We just knew. He stood there a moment, looking at all of us staring back at him. I think he was surprised to see the turn out, and by the silence.
He slowly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the papers of his speech. They looked like they had been torn out of a child’s school notebook. Then he patted his other pocket.
A flash of consternation touched his face. He patted his other pockets. We waited. Then he leaned over and whispered something in the ear of the man standing next to him. We waited. The other man took off his reading glasses and handed them over. The person we’d come to greet had left his reading glasses back in jail.
“Amandla” he croaked, a thin, weak, reedy voice that should not have carried. We all heard it.
“Awethu” replied a million people in one voice.
“Viva” he said, voice getting stronger.
“I Africa” a million voices replied in unison.
“Viva” his voice boomed, clearly heard across the square.
“I Africa” we yelled back.
“Viva” he said again. It was usually repeated three times.
“Mandela” a million voices broke the chain and said his name.
He started to read his speech to us. We all listened, absorbing each word. No one interrupted, no one shouted, I think we all stopped breathing. At some point he lost his nervousness and stopped reading from his papers. He just spoke to us. I could see his eyes from where I stood. It was as if he spoke to me and me alone.
And before we knew it, the speech was ending. And it ended in magic. I don’t remember the exact words. I remember one small man thanked a million people who had grown up hating each other and had come together to welcome him to freedom, and asked us to quietly turn around and go home.
The police had expected the crowd to riot and burn Cape Town to the ground after the speech. Maybe we did too.
Madiba had asked us in his soft voice to go home quietly.
A million people turned around and walked quietly back to the central train station. No riots, no violence, no anger, no hatred, no racism. All smiles, tears in our eyes. White people who hated black people were shaking hands with black people. Black people who had been down trodden all their lives were hugging their white oppressors and patting the hated cops on their backs. There was no Apartheid any more, it was over for the people there.
Nelson Mandela’s great reconciliation began there and then, on that day, in that place, for those people, only a few hours after his walk to freedom.
That day changed us all. Thank you, Madiba, for teaching us all to be better people. We knew you and will always remember you and what you believed in. Now its our turn to remember the lessons you taught us, to pass them on and to make this world a better place.