Cape Town - February 11, 1990 - the day of Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in jail - was an occasion of such immense emotion that it’s not surprising that the memory of it has played tricks on some of those involved.
But is it possible that even Madiba’s recall of that day may not be perfect?
This has emerged in a difference of some of the memories about what happened shortly before his historic address from the City Hall.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the drive back to Cape Town from Victor Verster prison in Paarl from where he’d been released, and how his panicked driver had been unable to cope with the crowds who’d surrounded their vehicle as they neared the Grand Parade.
“Several dozen marshals eventually came to the rescue and managed slowly to clear an exit path. When we finally broke free, the driver set off at great speed in the opposite direction from the City Hall,” he wrote.
“ ‘Man, what are you doing?’ I asked him in some agitation. ‘I don’t know!’ he said, his voice tense with anxiety’... and then continued driving without any direction in mind.
“When he began to calm down, I gave him directions to the house of my friend and attorney Dullah Omar, who lived in the Indian area of the city. We could go there, I said, and relax for a few minutes...
“Fortunately, Dullah and his family were home, but they were more than a bit surprised to see us. I was a free man for the first time in 27 years, but instead of greeting me, they said with some concern, ‘Aren’t you meant to be at the Grand Parade?’
“We were able to have some cold drinks at Dullah’s, but we had only been there a few minutes when Archbishop Tutu telephoned (urging Mandela to get the Grand Parade as soon as possible).”
But Farieda Omar, widow of the late justice minister in Mandela’s cabinet - Omar later became transport minister in the Mbeki administration - remembers this day very differently. She says the family wasn’t even home when Madiba arrived.
The previous night, February 10, the ANC executive had arrived at their Athlone home and had asked her to fetch Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from what was then still DF Malan airport the following day, she said. (Madikizela-Mandela, some of her family and some senior ANC leaders flew to Cape Town aboard a jet supplied by a multinational corporation.)
“I was so excited by the wonderful news,” Farieda Omar recalled on Monday in a telephone interview from Maritzburg, where she is visiting her son.
“I got up very early (the next day) to do the sandwiches for all the marshals who were going to be at the meeting, and after that I went to the airport to fetch Winnie. We were all very excited, and then Winnie and I came to the prison.”
There had been a short meeting at Victor Verster and then they had driven to Cape Town along roads lined with cheering, waving people.
“It was chaotic and wonderful and very, very nice,” she said.
Omar said it was “definitely not correct” that she and her family had been at home when Mandela had arrived there.
She had gone straight to the Grand Parade with Madikizela-Mandela, “and all our children were already at the Grand Parade”.
Instead, Mandela’s driver had initially not known where to go, and when finding no one at the home of the Omars, had taken Mandela to the home of fellow ANC activist Saleem Mowzer, who lived very close to them. (Mowzer later became Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for trading services and served as acting mayor.)
“His sister (Nishaad), who was highly pregnant, opened the door and she got such a shock (at seeing Madiba)! She was so excited,” Omar said.
Mandela eventually arrived at the Grand Parade, where he gave his historic address, she continued – “It was very, very beautiful!”
Mandela had subsequently visited their home on a number of occasions, particularly when her husband had been very ill, she recalled.
She described Mandela’s passing as “very sad” and said she would “definitely” be watching television coverage of Tuesday’s memorial service in Joburg and Sunday’s funeral in Qunu.
She said the way Mandela had lived and the values he had stood for were an example for all South Africans.
“We must not be negative about our country and we must build it as a nation, as one people.”
Mowzer confirms Farieda Omar’s version of events, and says that while “Comrade Dullah” had felt very strongly that the version in Long Walk to Freedom should be corrected, it had never been an issue for his (Mowzer’s) family.
“It was an historical moment and it was an absolute honour and privilege (to have Mandela at his home). That moment will be etched with me and my family for the rest of our lives.”
Mowzer explained that he had been driving another Rivonia treason trialist, Raymond Mhlaba, on the day of the release.
The convoy from Paarl had stopped in Rondebosch, near UCT, and debated what to do with Madiba and the VIPs before going to the Grand Parade. Omar’s son Kemal had offered to take them to his family home but had then realised no one would be home.
“We contemplated going to Bishopscourt instead but then realised that they would also all be at the Grand Parade.
“So I said I lived quite close by and that we could go to my place, just so that he (Madiba) could be in a safe place and rest while we made contact with Comrade Dullah and the others at the Parade.
“But lo and behold, my whole family was already at the Parade, except for my sister Nishaad who had just arrived from Joburg and who had managed to miss everyone. She opened the door and there was Madiba standing right in front of her!”
Mowzer said South Africans need to celebrate Mandela’s life. “We need to live his values and his principles, that’s the important thing.”
Mowzer’s personal account of February 11, 1990 appears on the Nelson Mandela Foundation website, http://www.nelsonmandela.org.