Pretoria witnessed many Madiba milestones

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Nelson Mandela with Nelson Oliver, a 15-year-old Pretoria Boys High pupil, who was bedridden and fighting cancer in 1998. Photo: Patricia Hagen

Pretoria - The father of the Rainbow Nation has a long relationship with the nation’s capital, Pretoria, from being denied his freedom when he was jailed by the Pretoria Supreme Court to his inauguration as the president of a democratic South Africa at the Union Buildings.

The Old Synagogue in Paul Kruger Street was converted into a Supreme Court and housed Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 other freedom fighters during their treason trial in 1958.

It was also there while on trial for inciting a strike and leaving South Africa without a passport in 1962 that

Mandela made his famous speech, saying he “feels like a black man in a white man’s court”.

“I detest most violently the set-up that surrounds me here. It makes me feel that I am a black man in a white man’s court. This should not be. I should feel perfectly at ease and at home with the assurance that I am being tried by a fellow South African who does not regard me as an inferior, entitled to a special type of justice,” he said, before pleading not guilty on both charges.

He was found guilty on November 7, 1962 and was sentenced to five years in prison. The presiding judge found Mandela to be the “mouthpiece of the scheme to call a strike in protest against the establishment of the Republic”.

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Nelson Mandela and Gra�a Machel at the launch of the Blue Train at Pretoria station in 1997. Photo: Etienne Creux


Mandela, who was then 44, started serving his sentence in Pretoria Central Prison before he was moved, briefly, to Robben Island where he was held in solitary confinement.

Then came the infamous Rivionia Trial at the Palace of Justice in Church Square in 1963.

As a result of the trial, that ended in June 1964, Mandela spent 25 years and 8 months in prison (of which 18 years were spent on Robben Island) before being released by FW de Klerk on February 11, 1990.

In a holding cell at the Palace of Justice on Church Square, where Mandela and his co-accused were kept during the trial, one can still see inscriptions on the walls.

Almost 50 years ago, Mandela made his “I am prepared to die” speech in Court C of the Palace when the defence opened its case in the Rivonia Trial.

Mandela and his fellow prisoners spent many days in the cell between 1963 and 1964. It is unclear whether he scribbled on the walls but to this day there are declarations from the Freedom Charter on the walls of the cell that have seen prisoners from all walks of life passed through.

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A picture taken by Jurgen Schadeberg on October 13, 1958, shows Nelson Mandela and Moses Kotane leaving the old synagogue after the State withdrew its indictment during the Treason Trial. It hangs in Mandelas room at the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Photo: Themba Hadebe


Part of the writing reads: “South-Africa belongs to all who live in it - black and white - and no government can justly claim authority, unless it is based on the will of the people.”

The holding cell was left untouched and can still be viewed by appointment.

During the trial, Mandela spoke of his dreams for a democratic and free South Africa. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

But he did not die, and his 27 years in prison turned him into an international icon.

When he walked the streets of the capital he was a hero.

On August 6, 1990, FW de Klerk, on behalf of the South African government, and Mandela, on behalf of the African National Congress, signed the Pretoria Minute, reaffirmed their commitment to the Groote Schuur Minute (the result of a similar meeting in Cape Town in May 1990) and extended the consensus to include several new points.

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Nelson Mandela takes the oath of office at the Union Buildings, Pretoria, on May 10, 1994 to become the country's first black president. Mandela had a significant relationship with the capital city during his lifetime. Photo: David Brauchli


The most significant of these was point three which reads: “In the interest of moving as speedily as possible towards a negotiated peaceful political settlement and in the context of the agreements reached, the ANC announced that it was now suspending all armed actions with immediate effect.

As a result of this, no further armed actions and related activities by the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) will take place.”

The suspension of the armed struggle had been a fundamental block on the negotiations for the end of white rule and the creation of a new South African constitution, and the ANC’s unilateral concession enabled the process to continue.

More talks, and on April 27, 1994 all South Africans went to the polls for the first time.

Then on Tuesday, May 10, 1994, the day the country and the world had been waiting for, Mandela was inaugurated as president - four years and 88 days after his release from Robben Island.

More than two billion people from around the world watched as the first president of the new South Africa was sworn in at the Union Buildings.

It was the largest gathering of heads of state since the funeral of assassinated US President John F Kennedy in 1963.

South Africans from the length and breath of the country travelled to the capital to attend the inauguration at the Union Buildings.

“After the solemn, official part of the programme, the music started, and our small group of rather stiff whites was soon swept up by a company of ladies in bright yellow outfits who insisted we join in the dancing. They showed us how easy it was to at least approximate the fluidity of their movements.

“This was a truly memorable day for me and I am sure for thousands others who were fortunate enough to be in Pretoria on that day,” city resident Elizabeth Boje remembers.

Some of the Pretoria News reporters working that day insisted on wearing”Madiba shirts” .

“It was a proud moment for us,” remembered the late Patrick Hlahla, who was covering the event for the Pretoria News from the lawns.

At around noon that day, Mandela raised his right hand and was sworn in as the president of a country rising from the ashes of political turmoil.

“Each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld,” Madiba said in his inauguration speech.

City residents remember a Boeing 747 flying low over the city during the inauguration ceremony.

“Standing on the roof of Pretoria News, you felt you could reach up and touch it,” one staffer recalled.

On July 20, 1994, the National Press Club based in Pretoria, named Mandela “Newsmaker of the Year”.

In his acceptance speech, Mandela said: “The Pretoria Press Club does me a great honour in singling me out with its 1994 Newsmaker of the Year Award.

“In accepting the award with heartfelt gratitude, I do so in all humility on behalf of our South African nation. Indeed, the truth that it is not kings, generals and other leaders who make history, has never been more forcefully illustrated than it was in 1994”.

He added that the news events of 1994 were milestones in South Africa’s history.

The world premiere of the movie Mandela took place at the Sterland cinema complex in the city in October 1996. The event saw celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier travelling to the city.

In September 1997, Mandela’s path crossed the capital city again when he attended the launch of the Blue Train at the station with Graça Machel, who he married on July 18, 1998, the same day he turned 80.

Mandela, after jokingly warning everyone to stand back, pulled the plunger, blowing the traditional steam-style whistle.

On March 23, 1998 Mandela visited the Pretoria News, which is now situated on the street bearing his clan name, Madiba Street.

The news room was packed with staff members waiting to meet the legendary freedom fighter.

Some staffers remember Madiba’s visit as if it were yesterday.

Dianne Low said she was astonished at Mandela’s memory. He greeted her at the front of the queue and after greeting everyone came across her again.

He immediately recognised her and told her he had greeted her minutes earlier.

Joe Mokone, a former employee of the photographic department, remembers Mandela’s visit clearly.

He got the chance to speak to Mandela and still treasures his photograph with the father of the nation.

“That day was so important to me,” he recalls. “After he told his spokeswoman to allow him to speak to us, he asked me what I do for the Pretoria News. I told him I work on the picture desk and I have so many pictures of him. He told me I must look after myself and he went on to speak to everyone else who wanted a turn,” Mokone remembers.

Mandela’s human touch was never far away. In July 1998 he visited Nelson Oliver, a 15-year-old Pretoria Boys’ High School pupil who was fighting cancer.

He spent 15 minutes with the boy, talking about issue ranging from soccer to faith.

When he left, the young Nelson presented Mandela with cartoons he had drawn.

Mandela told the boy: “I have come here in the spirit of helping to give you strength and so that you know you are not alone.”

During his years in office, many heads of state and celebrities were drawn to the capital.

Along with thousands of other gifts and accolades, Mandela was honoured with many tributes in the city.

In addition to Madiba Street (formerly Vermeulen Street), Nelson Mandela Drive (formerly Edward Street ) was named after him when the city built the north/south double carriageway in the CBD.

The Edward Street Project was proud to be named Nelson Mandela Boulevard before it was changed to Nelson Mandela Drive.

In addition to the street names, Mandela was honoured with a bronze statue in Mandela Village near Hammanskraal.

It was sculpted by Phil Minnaar and unveiled on June 12, 1999.

In May 2008, Mandela received the Freedom of the City from the Tshwane Metro Council, the first individual to be awarded by the metro.

The then executive mayor, Gwen Ramokgopa, said the award recognises Mandela’s role as the president of a democratic South Africa.

“It is fitting that the capital city, the city in which he worked and lived as the first president of the democratically elected republic, should bestow this honour on him,” she said.

The official ceremony took place in Johannesburg (because of Mandela’s age) and was then relayed to City Hall in Pretoria, while a public event was held at Church Square where the ceremony was broadcast on big screens.

Ramokgopa also visited the public in the square and held up the signed scroll indicating Mandela’s acceptance.

“Halala Madiba, Halala. We love you. We honour you. Long live Madiba long live,” she called.

Then Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi received the award in the city on Mandela’s behalf.

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