The drive from Paarl to Cape Town was only forty-five minutes. The plan was for Nelson Mandela to address the world at the Grand Parade, the great public square adjacent to the Fort of Good Hope, where South Africa’s founding father Jan van Riebeck had established a toehold for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. As Mandela drew near to the Grand Parade an enormous crowd enveloped his car. A massive hailstorm of joyous fists hammered down on the boot and bonnet. Well-wishers jumped on the car in celebration, and it began to shake violently. “I felt as though the crowd might very well kill us with their love,” Mandela recalled. Attempts to clear a path were futile and Mandela sat there, stranded in his vehicle for hours. After over ten thousand days of imprisonment, Mandela was now imprisoned by tens of thousands of his most ardent supporters.
Parade marshals eventually came to the rescue, and Mandela finally reached his destination several hours late. Standing on the balcony of the City Hall overlooking the Grand Parade, he looked down on “a boundless sea of people cheering, holding flags and banners, clapping and laughing.” He began his speech in his native Xhosa tongue, leading the massive crowd in the responsive chant that was a regular feature of anti-apartheid gatherings.
“Power!” Mandela bellowed with his fist raised.
“It is ours!” replied the cheering crowd.
“Power!” Mandela repeated.
“It is ours!” yelled the throngs.
“Africa!” chanted Mandela.
“Let it come back!” they chanted back.
“Let it come back!” Mandela replied.
“Africa!” they answered, in a crescendo that was decades in the making.
As the crowd settled down, Mandela embarked on a militant speech that embraced the battle against apartheid on all fronts. “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” Mandela said. “We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process toward democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait.” Saluting communists and combatants, embracing international sanctions, and vowing to continue the armed struggle against apartheid, Mandela catered to his swelling ranks and flamed the fears of his nervous opponents. After twenty-seven years of internal exile, Mandela knew that the first step toward peace was to restore his leadership within the African National Congress.
White South Africans were shocked by Mandela’s fiery speech. The day before President F.W. de Klerk had assured them that Nelson Mandela was “committed to a peaceful solution and a peaceful process.” After hearing the speech, de Klerk felt deceived. “I realized once again that the road ahead would be extremely difficult.”
The great question that had vexed South Africa for decades was, “Not if, but when?” When would the dawn come? The sun-tipped mountains shone bright, but the great valleys, the valleys where old men and women scratched the red blood soil to survive, remained in darkness. “When,” in the words of Cry the Beloved Country, would “that dawn … come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear?” “Why, that,” Alan Paton concluded, “[was] a secret.” Forty years after that forlorn question was asked it remained an unanswered secret.
The answer did not come on February 11, 1990, the day of Mandela’s release. Nothing Mandela said that day assuaged white fears or emancipated black bondage. At most one could glimpse the first lights of the new dawn on the tips of the mountain. “The road ahead may be long and hazardous,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “but at long last it seems what so many have prayed and fasted for … seems more attainable than ever before.”
President F.W. de Klerk, the one responsible for Mandela’s freedom, was more sanguine: “I was struck by an inescapable truth: an irreversible process had begun—and nobody could predict precisely how it would end.”