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It was something of a pilgrimage. My wife Ann and I had pitched the rented camper van in which were exploring South Africa on a pretty campsite among the vineyards near Paarl the handsome capital of the Cape Winelands.
An early start the next morning saw us driving along the spectacular valley of the Dwars River. Our destination was the far from romantically named Drakenstein Correctional Centre.
It was a journey we had been hoping to make for many years. The prison is still in use and outside were a cluster of worried-looking families joining the queue to visit incarcerated loved ones.
We were beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of our visit when a young smiling prison officer in a smart brown uniform knocked on our window.
“Hi,” she said with a smile. “Tourists? Are you from England? No doubt you are here to see where our beloved Madiba took his famous steps to freedom. Follow me,” she said.
So there we were just inside the gates of the former Victor Verster Prison where Nelson Mandela spent the last part of his 27 years of imprisonment.
The prison officer told us that the cottage where Mandela spent the last few months of his long sentence is now a South African national heritage site. Just outside the prison gate she showed us the fine statue of the great man himself.
Back in 1964, Nelson Mandela was one of eight men accused of conspiracy and sabotage in the notorious Rivonia trial, named after a suburb of Johannesburg where African National Congress (ANC) leaders had their secret headquarters in a farmhouse.
In an electrifying speech from the dock at the beginning of his defence, Mandela told the court: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live, and to see realised. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Passing sentence, apartheid judge Justice de Wet compared the convicted men’s crime to high treason but said that after careful consideration he had decided not to impose “the supreme penalty.” Mandela was sent to prison for life.
Margaret Thatcher and many British Tories thought the judge had been too lenient. They called for Mandela to be hanged. Present House of Commons’s Speaker John Bercow led a Tory student campaign under the slogan “Hang Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela served the first 18 years of his sentence in the notorious maximum-security prison on Robben Island. When they first landed on the island a warder greeted Mandela and his ANC comrades with these words, “This is the island. This is where you will die.”
The prisoners faced a harsh regime in a new cell block specially constructed for political prisoners. Each had a single cell just 7ft square around a concrete courtyard, with a slop bucket. No books or reading materials were allowed, although this rule would eventually be relaxed a little.
Hard labour in the baking hot quarry on the island was hell. The white-hot sun reflecting of the bleached limestone nearly blinded Mandela.
In his prison cell he secretly worked on the first part of what would become his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. ANC comrades helped him hide draft pages from the guards.
In 1982 he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town.
From there, on December 9 1988, Mandela was moved to the Victor Verster Prison, now renamed the Drakenstein Correctional Centre.
Already the apartheid government, running scared and aware that their time was up, needed to hold negotiations with the man who, despite having spent the last 27 years in prison, was clearly the leader of the South African people.
For those negotiations Mandela lived in a small cottage inside the prison’s farm compound. President FW De Klerk sent high-ranking ministers and civil servants to talk with Mandela.
He was incarcerated there for another 14 months until finally he was taken to meet and talk with De Klerk himself. The two discussed arrangements for Mandela’s release.
Just after 4pm on February 11 1990 the date set by De Klerk, Mandela, then aged 71, walked free. One hand held the hand of his wife Winnie. The other was raised in the clenched fist of an ANC victory salute.
At that moment, as the camera flashes went off to record the moment, Mandela switched from being a symbol of the oppressed to the global symbol of courage and freedom that would define the rest of his life.
After his release Mandela would live for almost another quarter-century. He became president of a new South Africa, his beloved rainbow nation.
It was a long journey from imprisoned freedom fighter branded as a terrorist to one of the world’s greatest ever leaders.
Like so many important journeys this one started with a single step and a short walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison 25 years ago this weekend.
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