Melanie Verwoerd: 30 years on … maybe we can (briefly) celebrate how far we've come?

There is sometimes the inclination among those who were not yet born or too young to remember, to accuse those like Madiba and (on the opposite side of the spectrum) Roelf Meyer of selling out, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Yesterday, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison.

I believe every one of those who were old enough, will remember where they were and what they were doing at that moment - not only in South Africa, but around the globe.

I was in Oxford. A few of us huddled in front of a small black and white TV. For hours we sat there staring at the screen which showed the gates of the prison.

During those hours it felt like the whole world was holding it's collective breath.

We wondered what he would look like after almost three decades and whether his voice would sound similar to the last recording of him at his trial 27 years earlier?

Would he be angry and stir up hatred and violent retribution?

We wondered and we waited.

Then we saw him as he slowly walked with Winnie towards the gate. Nelson Mandela was finally free!!!

The explosion of joy was palpable through our tiny TV screen thousands of miles away. For a moment everyone believed that good could triumph over evil and that justice could prevail.

The world celebrated.

I remember weeping with joy because he was free, but also with sadness because of all the suffering and pain that had been unnecessarily caused over the decades of Apartheid to the millions of my fellow country men and women.

I have often thought how difficult that day must have been for Madiba.

Of course he must have been excited to be free, but for decades he had very limited interaction with people, certainly never more than a handful at a time.

From the moment he stepped out of his house at Victor Verster prison, he was thrust into a maelstrom of hundreds of thousands of people cheering him on wherever he went.

From that day (and for the rest of his life) thousands of cameras would be clicking in his face whenever he was out in public and an endless stream of people would be wanting a bit of his time.

It must have been very difficult especially on that first day of freedom.

A few hours later, after his driver got lost on the way, he arrived at the Cape Town Parade and we could hear him for the first time.

"I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” he said movingly at the beginning of the speech.

Despite reading the words slightly haltingly (maybe because he had mislaid his reading glasses and had to borrow Winnie’s), it was clear – this man was one of exceptional greatness.

Never again would we doubt that our new nation would be led by a phenomenal man.

Three decades later, it is sometimes easy to forget how far we have come since that day.

We have seen the end of white political monopoly, to quote from Madiba’s speech on that day.

Instead we have one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. A Constitution that we wrote ourselves and that safeguards human and economic rights on a scale thought impossible when Madiba was released.

We no longer have political prisoners.

Today people can be fiercely critical of each other and the government without the risk of being arrested and tortured to death.

We have an independent and free media and judicial system - something we could only dream of under Apartheid.

We can play sport against the rest of the world - hell, we can beat the rest of the world! We can trade on the global markets and, although we still have a long way to go, being prosperous is no longer reserved for whites.

Today we can all walk, live, swim and sit where we want.

We can love who we want and we can shop and work where we want.

Our army no longer patrols our townships and people are no longer dying in their hundreds in our border wars. We no longer blow up our neighbouring countries and we are no longer a pariah state internationally.

Most importantly because of the extraordinary generosity of the majority of the people in this country, we achieved a peaceful transition and today we largely live together in harmony.

There is sometimes the inclination among those who were not yet born or too young to remember, to accuse those like Madiba and (on the opposite side of the spectrum) Roelf Meyer of selling out.

But just imagine where we would have been if the negotiated settlement had not succeeded?

Ongoing sanctions would have brought the economy to its knees - far beyond what we are struggling with today.

Violence would have escalated and more and more lives would have been lost.

Of course we continue to have gigantic challenges.

Economic, racially based inequalities are bigger than ever. Corruption, hatred and crime are all part of our daily lives.

But perhaps we can get back to those challenges again tomorrow?

Perhaps, just for a day or so, we can celebrate how far we have come, take a breath, smile at our fellow citizens, pat ourselves on the back ever so briefly and most importantly remember the man who led us through it all.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland

See www.melanieverwoerd.co.za