It was a frightening exercise: Ngcuka on Madiba’s release

Friday, March 16, 2018

Nostalgia and euphoria are always likely to go hand in hand when the world remembers the day that one of the world’s most famous statesmen clenched and raised his right fist and took his first steps to freedom after 27 years in jail.

“I would change a lot of things, we would be better prepared now,” says one of the men who played a key role in events that unfolded on 11 February, 28 years ago.

Now chairman of the board of Vuwa Investments, Bulelani Nqcuka cuts a different figure from his days as one of the key individuals behind the historic events leading to the birth of a new South Africa.

Ngcuka, human rights lawyer Dullah Omar and former Chief Justice Pius Langa, who have since passed on, formed part of the Nelson Mandela Reception Committee that had been set up to receive Mandela from prison.

Sitting in a boardroom of the investment company premises in Sandton, Johannesburg, this week, and in the year that marks the centenary of the birth of Mandela, Nqcuka chuckles as he recalls the events of 11 February 1990. The day of Madiba’s release placed the eyes and ears of the world firmly on the country located on the African continent’s southernmost tip.

In the year that government has dedicated to celebrate the life and times of South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nqcuka distinctly remembers how the then apartheid government impressed on the committee to make Mandela’s safety a key priority. That statement was dismissed with a simple “you needn’t tell us that” followed by a “he’s one of us.”

Ngcuka recalls that on the day before the release of the global icon, the committee had no idea of what was to unfold the next day.

Preceding the official final announcement of Madiba, then President FW de Klerk, at the opening of Parliament on 2 February 1990 had announced the unbanning of liberation movements such as the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress.

The day before Mandela’s release, Nqcuka remembers cutting short his speech to the Consultative Business Movement which was a forum formed to engage white business people to make his way to the Victor Verster prison in Paarl.

With the message he received that Mandela would be released from prison, Nqcuka rushed home for a change of clothes. Once he got home, he briefed fellow committee members and anti-apartheid activists Trevor Manuel and Valli Moosa. The trio drove to human rights lawyer Dullah Omar’s home to plan their next move.

Madiba’s release was confirmed to the world by President de Klerk at a press briefing that day.

That Saturday evening, at Mandela’s cottage on the prison premises, the committee burnt the midnight oil strategising events of the following day.

Nqcuka remembers how the committee arrived at the cottage to find Mandela dressed in his pajamas and readying for bed. Mandela had been moved to the cottage on the prison premises, following his discharge from a clinic in Cape Town following a bout of Tuberculosis.

That Saturday night, with grape juice in hand, committee members arranged a rally that would be held at the Grand Parade in the Cape Town city centre the next day, following his release at 3pm. At that meeting, Madiba offered pointers on what his speech, which was to be arranged by Moosa, should entail.

The man who spent 27 years of his life incarcerated had also insisted that he be released from the prison instead of transported to his house in Soweto as had been offered by President de Klerk. In addition, his beloved wife Winnie had to be by his side.

Essentials such as sound systems, posters and flyers and the busing in of people from all around had to be organised that night, although most places were closed for business.

Not being able to get hold of Winnie who had been attending a funeral in Soweto also threw a spanner in the works for the committee at a time when cellphones did not exist.

With expectation among the Mandela family that Madiba would be released in Johannesburg, the committee eventually got hold of mam Winnie late that night.

Further complicating matters, the question of where Madiba was going to spend his first night as a free man featured highly in the minds of committee members.

Quick thinking Nqcuka suggested that Madiba spend the night at the official residence of Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu at Bishops Court. A call to Bishops Court in Cape Town raised members’ blood pressure as Archbishop Tutu was not present but on holiday at his house in Soweto.

 “What were we going to do?” he remarks before relaying another frantic phone call, this time to the Tutu residence in Vilakazi street.

Answering the call, the Archbishop’s wife Leah, promised to thoroughly wring young Ngcuka’s Ears.

With the Pandora’s Box thoroughly opened, the Archbishop struggled to find flights with all flights to Cape Town fully booked.

As fate would have it, an earlier radio interview in which Ngcuka stated that the people’s hero would spend the night at Bishops Court worked out in the committee’s favour. Once the BBC heard of Tutu’s predicament, the British broadcaster offered Tutu a lift from Johannesburg in their plane to Cape Town.

Flight delays for committee chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, who flew in from Port Elizabeth alongside Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki bought the committee some much needed time to secure cars for the Madiba motorcade that would head to the rally on Sunday afternoon.

Upon seeing the luxury cars that would ferry Madiba, the committee chairperson expressed dissatisfaction with the fleet of Mercedes Benz and BMW sedans that the committee had secured from the Western Cape Trader’s Association.

“No! You can’t have all these luxury vehicles going to fetch the people’s leader. You must bring cars that befit the status of the man,” said Rampahosa at the time.

Explaining this to the association made up predominantly of Indian and coloured business people, the cars were changed to modest sedans.

“Thus Madiba was transported in a Camry,” recalls Nqcuka, as he raises his eyebrows from behind his glasses.

With all the delays having been ironed out, the delegation arrived at the prison an hour late that Sunday afternoon.

Among the 22 boxes of Madiba’s belongings collected from the prison included a collection of books, a hat and an exercise bike for the man who in his youth was an avid boxer.

Throngs of people lined the streets from Paarl to the Grand Parade hoping to catch a glimpse of Madiba in the motorcade.

While making their way to the parade, a colleague stopped the motorcade informing them of the large number of people that had gathered at the parade.

In the unfolding chaos, a traffic officer offered to lead the motorcade of over 15 sedans on a route that gained them entry to the back of the City Hall.

“He led us right into the crowd. It was the most horrifying moment because at that time all our cars could have been trampled,” he says of that day.

Ngcuka’s  wife Phumzile, who is now the Executive Director of the United Nation’s (UN) Women, an entity set up to empower women, was one of the marshals that day.

“We got through and we stopped and I moved from my car to Madiba’s car. He was cool as a cucumber. All he said was: ‘My son you welcome me with a bang,’” he said of the electrifying albeit slightly scary environment at the parade.

In the chaos, Nqcuka took the decision to drive Madiba to a friend’s house in Rondebosch where they would discuss their next move.  However, fate had other ideas in mind as they arrived at the house to find it empty. Hot on their heels were Trevor Manuel and Archbishop Tutu who convinced them to drive back to the parade.

“The Archbishop said if Mr Mandela does not address the people of South Africa tonight, Cape Town will be in ashes, you have to go back. We went back, this time led by the police,” said Nqcuka.

The big moment for the then 71-year-old Madiba to address the crowd for the first time in almost three decades finally arrived and was almost complicated by one technicality.

“He realised that he had forgotten his glasses at Victor Verster and so mam Winnie took off hers and gave them to Madiba. So that first picture you see of Madiba addressing the world, he does so wearing Winnie’s glasses,” says Nqcuka as he laughs.

That night, the committee took Madiba to Bishops Court where he would get some much needed rest.

That evening, during a meeting at Omar’s house, the phone rang and Omar’s daughter picked  up.

Oblivious of who she was speaking to, she handed the phone over to her father. US President at the time. George Bush. was on the other end of the line.  President Bush had been hoping to speak to Madiba. The statesman had no qualms waiting on the line for Omar to get the number for Bishops Court so he could speak to Mandela.

“To me, that showed the significance of Tata Madiba,” says Ngcuka.

A few days following Madiba’s release, the committee held a meeting where unhappiness was expressed about the vehicles chosen to ferry Mandela.

National Union of Mineworkers of SA (Numsa) secretary general Moss Mayekiso informed the committee that workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in East London were unhappy with the choice of vehicle used.

This unhappiness led workers at the plant to build Mandela a vehicle in their spare time. Mandela would at a later stage make time to take delivery of the red S-Class sedan at the plant.

Nqcuka is of the view that such a token speaks volumes of the commitment and passion South Africans have for their country.

While some of the committee members have passed on over the years, the first head of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) appointed under President Mandela’s administration has no doubt that the deceased would have approved of government’s decision to mark  the centenary of Madiba’s birth.

“They would absolutely approve of this initiative. In fact those guys were not just members of the committee, we formed lifelong friendships out of that committee and I miss them dearly. I admire and applaud the decision that has been taken. The centenary is not just a celebration of Madiba but also a celebration of the achievements of the people of South Africa,” he says.

Just recently, the Department of Tourism initiated a dialogue whereby members of the Reception Committee relayed their memories of that day to the public.

Nqcuka remarks that such initiatives teach the public about the intimate details of that day.

“I have discovered that some of the things that we take for granted many people don’t know. Such dialogues are very critical in terms of the history and where we come from.”

And just what are the lessons that one can draw from Madiba’s release?

“For me that day gave me a glimpse of what a happy South Africa can be like when we are united in our diversity. For me that was the moment when we became free,” says Ngcuka.

Mandela who passed away in December 2013, would have turned 100 on 18 July 2018. –




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