04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nelson Mandela Freed 20 Years Ago: Where Were You When You Heard The News?

On the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, we are taking a look back along with The New York Review at the books published, the reviews and articles that document the making of Mandela and the transition of power--the history of the revolution that happened without bloodshed. It was an extraordinary moment when Mandela was released and later became president. Where were you when you heard the news?

South Africa: The Fire This Time?
By Leonard Thompson, June 14, 1990

  • The Mind of South Africa, by Allister Sparks (Knopf, 424 pp.)

In South Africa today, President F.W. de Klerk has disavowed apartheid and claims to be seeking a democratic solution; and Nelson Mandela, the effective leader of the African National Congress, has now agreed to negotiate with him. Allister Sparks's The Mind of South Africa is a splendid guide to the new situation in which both leaders find themselves. As a South African journalist and a former editor of Johannesburg's morning newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, which ceased publication in 1985, Sparks writes with close knowledge of the workings of apartheid. The first part of The Mind of South Africa deals with South African history down to 1948; the rest, more than half of the book, describes the apartheid era, about which he draws on his own experience. South Africa, he believes, is in transition to a better future, and later in this article, I shall discuss his conclusion in the light of my visit, during the last two weeks of March, to the southern Transvaal, Kwazulu, and Natal.

Sparks's interesting account of the two forces that confront each other in South Africa today, Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism, follows the lines of interpretation of most liberal South African historians, although many passages in his book are impressionistic rather than grounded in specific evidence, and, in continually emphasizing the contemporary significance of the past, he takes liberties that professional historians are loath to do. Read the rest of the article.

The Making of Mandela
By George M. Fredrickson, September 27, 1990

  • A History of South Africa, by Leonard Thompson (Yale University Press, 288 pp.)
  • The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress, by Heidi Holland (George Braziller)
  • South Africa Belongs to Us: A History of the ANC, by Francis Meli (Indiana University Press, 368 pp.)
  • Apartheid's Rebels: Inside South Africa's Hidden War, by Stephen M. Davis (Yale University Press, 238 pp.)
  • Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela, by Fatima Meer (Harper and Row, 428 pp.)

In Nelson Mandela's speech in Cape Town immediately after his release from prison in February was the key statement, 'I am a disciplined member of the ANC.' His constant use of the imperial 'we' in the public addresses and statements that he made during his recent US tour did not mean that he has an inflated sense of himself but that he was speaking for the African National Congress. Some American commentators and interviewers did not seem to understand this. Their questions and comments seemed to assume that he could have, or should have, deviated from well-established ANC positions on such matters as the use of force, sanctions, support of the PLO, and friendship for Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddhafi.

There is no reason to believe that his own thinking differs in any significant way from that of the organization he represents, but it is helpful to remember that he lacks the maneuverability of a constituted head of state. He cannot negotiate with the freedom of George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, or F. W. de Klerk; for, in his view, everything he does and says must be cleared with the collective leadership of an organization that he has never formally headed and over which he had only limited influence during his twenty-seven years in prison. Mandela's personal attitudes and qualities are likely to prove important in the long run, but for the moment those who wish to understand the direction of black politics in South Africa would be well-advised to learn as much as possible about the nature and objectives of the ANC. Mandela's recent utterances are more useful for what they tell us about the movement than for what they reveal about the man. Read the rest of the article.

South Africa on the Edge
By Scott MacLeod, February 11, 1993

The main achievement of South Africa's state president, F.W. de Klerk, has been to take the difficult political steps necessary to begin dismantling the system of white supremacy. Unfortunately, he has not shown similar courage or wisdom in leading the country toward the future. He has been particularly unsuccessful in dealing with the struggle over what will replace apartheid, which has pitted white against black and black against black, and which has resulted in some of the most appalling violence ever seen in South Africa. Since de Klerk was inaugurated in September 1989, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the townships, largely in fighting among black political groups. A smaller number of people, an estimated 2,300, were killed between 1984 and 1986, the years in which the government used extreme force to suppress black uprisings.[1]

In the California-like suburbs where many whites reside, life goes on much as usual, but some of the townships, where gunmen stand watch at street barricades and gunfire is heard after nightfall, remind me of Beirut. Nearly every day, the Johannesburg Star, the Sowetan, and other newspapers report new acts of violence in a black community--the ambush of a carload of activists, the assassination of a local leader, the lynching of a suspected informant, indiscriminate shootings of commuters on trains and buses. Read the rest of the article.

The Election Mandela Lost
By William Finnegan, October 20, 1994

Although the victory of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the historic South African elections in April was widely expected, the ANC actually lost badly to F. W. de Klerk's National Party in the Western Cape--a major province that includes Cape Town, the country's second-biggest city and the site of the National Parliament. This loss went largely unremarked by the international press, but it was a serious one for Mandela and for the liberation movement, whose members had fought desperately in the last weeks of the campaign to stave it off. Their defeat has deep implications for the country's future.

The standard explanation for the startling capture of a regional government by the party of apartheid is that the Western Cape does not have a black African majority; it has a "coloured" (or "mixed-race") majority, whose members, it was said, did not feel drawn to the black-dominated ANC and simply decided to vote for the white masters they already knew. But this explanation begs more questions than it answers. The Northern Cape province also has a coloured majority, and the ANC won there. The Western Cape was, moreover, an anti-government stronghold throughout the 1980s. In truth, something extra-ordinary happened in and around Cape Town after 1990, causing a stampede of poor and working-class coloureds toward their traditional oppressors. Read the rest of the article.

The Liberator
By William Finnegan, February 2, 1995

  • Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Little, Brown, 558 pp.)

This may seem a strange time for the autobiography of Nelson Mandela to appear. He has only recently been elected president of South Africa; presumably, his days will continue to be packed with newsworthy if not historic events for the next few years at least. Mandela's life, however, has already been so full, so improbably long and mythologically complete, that his current employment can almost be read as a postscript. Certainly Long Walk to Freedom does not give the impression of being a premature work. It is, in fact, timely in that some of its main themes--the complex alliance between South African Communists and African nationalists, the generational conflicts within the democracy movement, the tension between rural traditionalists and Westernized city folk--prefigure major political issues in the new South Africa. More than that, the book answers, not always intentionally, some fundamental questions about the extraordinary Mosaic figure who has become South Africa's first democratically chosen leader.

He was born in 1918 in the Transkei, a beautiful, deeply impoverished, green-hilled region on the Indian Ocean coast which is the home of the Xhosaspeaking people. Mandela's father, a local chief, was a member of the royal house of the Thembu tribe, whose kings he served as a counselor. Although illiterate, he was a celebrated public speaker: his son, Rolihlahla, who only got the name Nelson from a teacher on his first day at school (Rolihlahla is Xhosa, we are told, for "trouble-maker"), so admired his father, who had a tuft of white hair above his forehead, that he used to rub ashes into his own hair to get the same effect. Read the rest of the article.