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The day Mandela got arrested

Durban - Fifty-one years ago today, Nelson Mandela was arrested in KwaZulu-Natal on charges of leaving the country without a passport and calling on workers to strike.

This moment on August 5, 1962, Mandela’s last day of freedom before his 27 years of incarceration, is remembered as having changed the course of the Struggle against apartheid. His arrest was recreated in the film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom to be released later this year.

Nelson Mandela and his great-grandson, Ziyanda Manaway, reading the official children's version of his best-selling autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Photo: DEBBIE YAZBEK/NELSON MANDELA FOUNDATION. Credit: NELSON MANDELA FOUNDATION

Mandela, in his disguise as a chauffeur, had been driving with fellow activist Cecil Williams from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng. He had recently returned from travelling through Africa and on to London where he had undergone military training and drummed up support for the ANC.

In Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, he described the events leading up to his arrest.

“Cecil and I were engrossed in discussions of sabotage plans as we passed through Howick, 20 miles north-west of Pietermaritzburg.

“At Cedara, a small town just past Howick, I noticed a Ford V-8 filled with white men shoot past us on the right… I knew in that instant that my life on the run was over; my seventeen months of ‘freedom’ were about to end.”

Mandela had thought about jumping out of the car, but knew he would have been shot. “When our car stopped, a tall slender man with a stern expression came directly over to the window on the passenger side. He was unshaven and it appeared that he had not slept in quite a while. I immediately assumed he had been waiting for us for several days.”

The unkempt man introduced himself as Sergeant Vorster of the Pietermaritzburg police.

“He asked me to identify myself. I told him my name was David Motsamayi. He nodded, and then, in a very proper way, he asked me a few questions about where I had been and where I was going.

“I parried these without giving him much information. He seemed a bit irritated and then he said, ‘Ag, you’re Nelson Mandela, and this is Cecil Williams, and you are under arrest!’.”

Mandela refused to identify himself, despite being recognised by the police, declining to make a statement.

“Cecil and I were locked in separate cells. I now had time to ruminate on my situation. I had always known that arrest was a possibility, but even freedom fighters practise denial, and in my cell that night I realised I was not prepared for the reality of capture and confinement.

“I was upset and agitated. Someone had tipped the police off about my whereabouts. They had known I was in Durban and that I would be returning to Johannesburg,” Mandela wrote.

On November 7 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

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