“A true giant of our era.” That is how Professor Vanessa Watson remembers Nelson Mandela, whom she met, serendipitously, only hours after his release from prison 30 years ago today.
11 February 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s first steps to freedom. He had spent the last 14 months of his 27 years in jail at the then Victor Verster Prison in Paarl from where he was released. In the city, thousands thronged the Grand Parade to hear him speak, but one University of Cape Town (UCT) staffer, Watson (from the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment), remembers a special meeting with the newly released president-in-waiting.
She takes up the story:
“Saturday, 11 February 1990 was a momentous day. I was at home with my one-year-old twin babies and would otherwise have been at the Grand Parade waiting for Mandela to appear. I lived in a very small and quiet road next to UCT where I was working in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. I had been involved in a number of the Cape Town anti-apartheid organisations through the 1980s, and Mandela’s release was a dream come true.
“A little before 17:00 a friend arrived and said, ‘Do you know Nelson Mandela is sitting outside in the road?’ ”
“A little before 17:00 a friend arrived and said, ‘Do you know Nelson Mandela is sitting outside in the road?’ We could not believe this. My partner and I walked into the road carrying both babies. There we saw two black cars parked and in the front one was Mandela and his wife, Winnie.
“I raised my fist in a solidarity salute, and he beckoned us up to the car. There was no one else in the road at the time. He wound down the window and asked, ‘Can I hold your baby?’ I passed Simon through the window and he bounced him on his knee, asked what his name was and why we had chosen this name. I was incoherent with excitement and could say little more than, ‘How wonderful to see you!’
“Mandela passed back the first baby and asked to hold the second, and Daniel was handed in as well. Mandela played with him and asked his name. He gave him back to me and by that time other incredulous neighbours were gathering, and we moved back to give them space. Ten minutes later the cars pulled off. This was before cellphones and we could not take a picture.
“Our understanding was that he had been on his way to the [Grand] Parade – or perhaps had been there and found access impossible – and his drivers were looking for a quiet road to park in, near the freeway, while the traffic died down. His arrival in my road, as far as I know, was purely incidental.
“This was a momentous day which neither I nor my family have ever forgotten. His first wish, to hold a baby, showed his incredibly humane and generous nature: a true giant of our era.”
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