Danny Schechter - ZNet

Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Release from Jail

It was 20 years ago Thursday February 11th when Nelson Mandela’s Liberation Band began to play.  

While tens of millions looked on, a great drama was building steam in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated in a small house, now a national heritage site, at Victor Verster Prison for 14 months. It was a far cry from the isolated Robben Island dungeon he spent so many years confined to, but, after 27 years, he was not yet free. That was about to change.

While the media focus was on Mandela as a heroic personality, his release was not just granted by the Apartheid regime. It was won. Years earlier, the ANC made the decision to mount a campaign around him, assuring he would become a well-known personality and icon. His life story became the stuff of legends His face popped up on T-shirts and posters;  his name achieved brand status.  

A lawyer by training, he had himself negotiated the terms of his release-and, earlier, the freeing of his key comrades with government ministers and officials. There had been many secret meetings in prison and out.  He had refused all conditions including the demand that he forsake violence. He had insisted on walking out of the prison on his own steam, fist in the air. By then, Madiba, as he is known by a clan name, was the best-known political prisoner in the world.

Beyond that, other forces were responsible for creating the political conditions that doomed apartheid. A global anti-apartheid movement was not only protesting but demanding sanctions. When the Chase Manhattan Bank refused to roll over government loans, the handwriting was on the wall.  The pressure was building.

Largely unknown is the role that the demand for cultural sanctions had played as a high profile part of this campaign. I was privileged to have played a role in the Sun City project which mobilized 54 well known music stars, under the leadership of Little Steven and Producer Arthur Baker to popularize sanctions with the ("I Won’t Play) Sun City song and video

That was in l985. The song became a soundtrack for the struggle, contributed to creating a climate that led the US Congress to override a veto of a sanctions bill submitted by California Congressman Ron Dellums. Dellums and other black leaders in DC had been arrested sitting in at the South African Embassy. Anti-apartheid groups protested on campuses across America. Even a student named Barack Obama was involved while studying at Occidental College in California.

At the same time, South Africa’s townships were fired up by a campaign to make the country ungovernable. There was violence and mass arrests with 14,000 mostly young activists in jail. This led to an international outcry and pressure from the United Nations which sent eminent persons to meet Mandela and push for a diplomatic resolution of the deepening crisis.

Also outside the country, the ANC’s guerilla force stepped up its offensive as the Pretoria government retaliated with bombing attacks on the neighboring Front Line States. A campaign of destabilization was underway with South African backed proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique and covert assassination squads unleashed against activists. Leading anti-apartheid figures were killed including whites like David Webster in Natal and Ruth First in Maputo. Steve Biko had been murdered earlier.

The Afrikaners pictured themselves fighting a war against a Soviet-backed "Total Assault," a figment of their propaganda, Right-wing groups in the US allied with their attempts to stop independence for Namibia.  The convicted American right-wing lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now in prison for bribing members of Congress, was behind a propaganda movie called Red Dawn to demonize liberation struggles.

What the South Africans didn’t count on was the role played by the Cuban army which defeated the South Africans in the Southern Angolan town of Cuito Carnivale and forced the regime to back town. That victory was followed by the independence of Namibia, which became a forerunner to  what was to come in South Africa. This is why Fidel Castro attended, and was loudly cheered, at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as President in 1994.

These were the pillars of the fight to release Mandela and free South Africa. They were rarely referenced or explained in our media. Reporting here focused on violence and one man. The ANC was considered a terrorist force in Pretoria,  and by the Reagan Administration. When the Congress called for Mandela’s release, Dick Cheney, then in the House, voted against the resolution Reagan’s Secretary of State refused to meet with ANC leader Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s onetime law partner,  when he visited Washington. The ANC was undeterred.

All of this pressure from below led to changes from on high. History is not made just by leaders, even if that’s what TV coverage revolves around.

Nelson Mandela spoke to this many times even as all the TV networks wanted was an "exclusive" interview with the ‘Great Man.’ They referred to that as the "Big Get." My own company Globalvision’s attempt to challenge this narrative with our series "South Africa Now" and many films documenting Mandela’s role as a member of a movement, not just a celebrity, showed this was a struggle from below, a grass roots fight for justice.

Mandela’s release from prison energized a world-wide human rights struggle. On this anniversary, his compatriot Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us of its significance.

"While politicians dwell on the political significance of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, it is fitting on this momentous 20th anniversary of the event for all South Africans to remember where we come from.

"For the victory belonged not just to his beloved political organization, the ANC, but to all the people of our dear land.

"The day Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster Prison our collective spirit soared. …"If we really want to make a difference we must recapture the spirit of that day of Nelson Mandela’s release. We must recapture the spirit of pride once articulated by Steve Biko.

"We must not forget the past."


News Dissector Danny Schechter covered South Africa for decades and  directed six films on Nelson Mandela. (Available from



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