Can it be twenty years, already? I must admit that the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela has caught me by surprise. It’s still the biggest event I’ve covered.
So why would I regard it the biggest?
Silly question, maybe. But as a journalist, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an interesting, and varied, career. I’ve been assigned to events such as war, famine, unrest, elections, the Hajj and even big wave surfing. But the reason I think Mandela’s release is the special one is because it was our story.
Not only was it our story in the South African sense; it was our story because we were Cape Town journalists, many of whom had been on the coalface of the Mandela release saga for months.
We were the people who’d had to chase down every rumour of Mandela’s release whilst editors in London, Paris and New York had shouted hell and fury down the phones.
Jimmy Mathews, Aziz Tassiem, Sahm Venter, Benni Gool, Adil Bradlow, Obed Zilwa, Rashid Lombard, Mike Hutchings, Eric Miller, Tony Weaver, Paul Grendon, John Rubython, Craig Mathews, Chris Everson, Fanie Jason, Yunus Mohamed and Alvin Andrews are just some of the crew that I can remember (and forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone) covering the beat in those days.
It was an interesting time being a journalist. The noose of Apartheid was slipping, and even the SABC was sending reporters to UDF rallies.
I was a free-lancer then, stringing for the wire-services, working part-time for Muslim Views (when its editions weren’t being banned by Stoffel Botha) and running a surfing magazine.
When President FW de Klerk announced in parliament that Mandela would be released, we were following an event at the Grand Parade. I can remember snapping pictures of activist youths reading the Cape Argus headlines: “ANC Unbanned”.
As the time of release drew nearer, and all the big names in international journalism flocked to Cape Town, I realized that we locals would probably be sidelined to things like darkroom duty.
I decided that I was going to cover the event on my own. I wasn’t going to miss this piece of history. But I had to hope that the release would not be a “pool” event, a scenario where only selected photographers would be allowed to shoot it.
The Mandela release story was huge, and it was easy to get over-awed by the occasion. But we had to learn very quickly how to survive when out-of-town journalists started to push and shove us around.
I remember the Associated Press’s Adil Bradlow becoming as belligerent as The Beast in a scrum near the line. Many a foreign journalist found himself giving way to the stocky Adil. I always knew if I burrowed in behind Bradlow (who was much shorter than me) I’d get a clear shot!
Adil did pay a price, though. One day I remember the late John Rubython’s clunky Nikon F3 connecting with his skull. It was a change from watching South newspaper’s Yunus Mohamed from bleeding on the job. For some reason, poor Yunus had always copped it.
Fortunately, Mandela’s release was open to all the media, and I was assigned to shoot it for Muslim Views and a newspaper called the Lenasia Indicator. Its editor was the late Ameen Akalwaya, a former Rand Daily Mail staffer, and award-winning anti-Apartheid journalist.
I was absolutely determined to get a shot of Mandela’s release. We’d been told that Mandela would be released at about 3 pm.
I arrived at the gates of Victor Verster prison at 7 am on the fateful day with reporter Showket Hamdulay. I was eight hours early, yes, but it did give me the best opportunity for getting the picture.
I had my surfing lens, a barrel-shaped Century 600mm and a sturdy Slik tripod. I would use this rig for the long shots, and if there had to be running, Showket would grab the rig and I’d run with my other camera.
So there I stood in the baking Paarl sun, determined not to lose my spot behind the red-and-white security tape. I was thirsty and longed for a cool-drink, but desisted. Going to the toilet could see me losing my vantage point.
As the crowd of cameramen gathered I chatted to Willie de Klerk, a former Cape Argus photographer. Willie had snapped the first township necklacing.
A man with battered cameras introduced himself as Alf Khumalo. I was standing next to a legend! A prize-winning lens-man who’d cut his teeth at Drum Magazine, Alf quietly told me about his early years with Mandela. He also wasn’t going to miss the story.
As the hours ticked by and the press corps swelled in numbers, Chris Everson and Greg Shaw – a CBS TV crew – arrived with a yellow City Council cherry-picker. That was a stroke of genius. With the best seat in the house, their aerial footage would prove to be priceless.
A member of the international corps, a known prima donna, began to get agitated. Unused to “African time” and already fretting about deadlines, he complained we were too far from the gates. We must work together. We must not break ranks when Mandela walked through the gates, he said. That would spoil the shot.
I thought this a bit ripe, especially considering the times his ilk had previously tried to shoulder us out of the picture. Our friend then accosted Trevor Manuel. Big mistake.
After many hours of waiting, a hovering helicopter told me that Mandela was on his way. And soon enough, I heard ululating as his entourage moved towards the gate.
My camera was glued to my eye as I momentarily caught the great man in focus. Hand-in-hand with Winnie, he lifted his fist in triumph. What a moment!
The crowd broke through the tape – our international colleagues leading the charge – as it surged towards Mandela, who was quickly ushered into a vehicle before moving off. These were the days before VIP protection.
“You f… banana republic!” screamed the director of an international TV crew whose shot had been ruined. I knew then that CBS’s cherry-picker would be in business.
I was elated – if not relieved – that I’d got the picture, but had to remain humble. I could so easily have missed the shot myself.
As I look back at the digitally rescanned image now, I realise that it’s not the best I’ve ever taken. But without doubt, it’s the most iconic – a sublime moment of South African history. And for that reason, I think it’s now time to hang it on the wall.