That day I had no idea of the part I would play in the history of this great country. We had seen officials of the administration come and go over the years but none of us had any idea exactly why they visited. I don’t think his release was openly talked about ever, until the very end.
He was always a man of great dignity. Although he began as D-group at Robben, over the years he attained a gravitas we all came to appreciate. Still some didn’t respect his authority and esteem within the wider population but they were aware of it and what crossing it could mean. There was the risk of riot, of dissent, of physical violence even. Not that he would ever take part or suggest such action, but the commitment to armed struggle was not yet over then.
So de Clerk reversed the ANC ban and announced he would be out soon, which made the entire prison quiver with stored excitement. The buzz was tangible and we had some infractions that week, men itching for him to be released and wondering why he was eating with them again. We weren’t given the exact date, or the method. We just had to keep a lid on it.
Then I came to work that day and the governor requested I see him. He told me my work was exemplary and although I could not be upgraded to a senior position, he could reward me with a special job.
The governor gave me the job to escort Madiba from his cell to the front gate, where he would himself release him to the waiting world.
I was a young man at the time and thought only of the stories I would have to tell to my friends and the beers I would be bought for years, to tell my story. But in the telling, I came to realize what a privilege I had been given. As I heard people who supported his release and people who abhorred what happened, people arguing both sides with equal vigour, I saw our unique chance to make a difference.
I do tell my story still, but it is different from the one I told 20 years. I now take the right side, the only side.
Inspiration: The release of Nelson Mandela