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Recalling those first steps to freedom

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Orielle Berry pictured third from right when Madiba paid a visit to The Pretoria News, following his inauguration as President in 1994.

In January 1990 I returned from a decade of self-imposed exile in Israel. As most returning South Africans know, those initial months of return are generally fraught with emotion: of trying to familiarise oneself with the country one has lived in for so long but has been away from for so long, of feeling at home and yet like a fish out of water.

However on February 2, I knew that those weeks of misgivings, of wondering whether I had done the right thing, gave way to a certainty that coming back to South Africa – the country I loved and had grown up in, yet despaired of – had been the right thing and I couldn’t have chosen a better time.

That same day I started my first day at work at The Star newspaper as a sub-editor. The month leading up to that day, when President FW de Klerk was to address the second session of the ninth Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, was rife with speculation. Was he going to make a major announcement, and what would it be? Would South Africa finally be committing to the vague promises made in the past?

I sensed a remarkable feeling of hope and elation on the streets and in the homes of friends, most of whom lived in the suburb of Yeoville, Johannesburg, where many struggle activists shared communes.

As I arrived at work, I was whisked away to the computer room to be tutored on the new system. It was around noon and as David Friend, the IT specialist, showed me the ropes, he gave me some text of current articles to work on.

On the computer screen, before my eyes, appeared the words: “… It is time to break out of the cycle of violence and break through the peace and reconciliation… Among other things these aims include a new democratic constitution; universal franchise; no domination… Equality before an independent judiciary…”

Astounded, I read on: “In this connection Mr Nelson Mandela could play an important part. The government has noted that he has declared himself willing to make a constructive contribution to the peaceful political process in South Africa…” and then the big one: “…I wish to put it plainly that the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr Mandela unconditionally.”

“Wow! Holy s***t,” I mouthed to David. I did a little dance, clapped hands with him, and needless to say, my concentration levels waned as I carried on my lesson.

Later that day as I left The Star building in Sauer Street, the streets were alive, buzzing with a kind of euphoria that I had never seen anywhere before. Hooters honked, ANC flags had materialised out of nowhere and were triumphantly being hung out of car windows, and people with shirts emblazoned with the ANC colours took to the streets toyi-toying.

The nine days running up to and including Mandela’s release, were quite incredible: they were remarkable and joyous and exciting and again, I’d never experienced anything like it ever before.

My closest friends were all political activists and I spent almost all my free time at their homes, where Dollar Brand |blared “Manenberg” out of the stereo, lots of Tassies was consumed and we partied away till the small hours.

I worked the night shift and Sunday February 11 saw me at work at mid-afternoon. I had to tear myself away from watching TV at home as the crowd gathered outside Victor Verster prison, patiently waiting for Madiba to appear. But I needn’t have worried, because in the newsroom there was a buzz of anticipation, and after running back and forth to the TV screen it was finally happening: there he was – taking his first steps outside the prison.

Needless to say, even the most hardened reporters and journos shed tears as Mandela gripped Winnie’s hand high above his head, and the world watched as the man who had been imprisoned for 27 years walked free.

My heart swelled and I felt it would burst with pride. “I am home and I am a South African. We have made it …”

While the 20 years that have followed have given way in many people’s hearts to a sense of disenchantment and cynicism, this is a good time to cast one’s mind back to that momentous day… to regenerate a feeling of faith and pride in our country and of ourselves as South Africans … there is so much more to be proud of than to despair of.

Written by Orielle Berry You are reading Recalling those first steps to freedom articles

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