Two decades of Madiba's long walk
© Getty Images

Scenes of an older, but still vibrant, Nelson Mandela raising his fist and shouting the popular revolutionary slogan, "Amandla" (meaning power to the people), while exiting the Victor Verster Prison two decades ago today are still vivid in many people’s minds.

By 11 February 1990, the famed political prisoner had spent almost a third of his life in prison, and the world watched as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, along with his then-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, made his first step into freedom after almost 30 years. It was a triumphant return for Mandela and a moment that brought not only South Africa to a standstill but also generated international headlines. People around the world wanted to see the man, who, until then, had only been known by his name since no photographs of him appeared in newspapers or television for over 27 years.

Greetings and well wishes
Today, Madiba, as the elder statesman is now fondly known, is celebrating 20 years since his release. Hundreds of messages from all corners of the globe are finding their way to the former South African president, with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter describing him as a symbol of Africa’s humanity.

We trust that the FIFA World Cup™ will contribute to the legacy that you wanted for your country.
FIFA President Joseph S Blatter

In a recorded video message, which you can view by clicking the link on the right, the FIFA President praised Mandela for his vigilance in the fight against apartheid and for helping to bring democracy to South Africa. “There is no greater symbol of Africa’s humanity than you and what you stand for. You gave more than your share to your country and your continent. You dedicated your life to the endorsement of human rights and democracy,” Blatter said.

Blatter also reaffirmed to Madiba his belief that South Africa will host a successful FIFA World Cup in June and July of this year. “In this same spirit, your young nation will deliver a great tournament with determination and dignity this year. I still remember you telling me about how inspirational the 2010 FIFA World Cup is for you and what 2010 means for you and your country. We trust that the FIFA World Cup will contribute to the legacy that you wanted for your country.”

The release of Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, largely on the notorious Robben Island, helped pave the way for the first democratic elections in South Africa. And four years later, it was Mandela himself who traded the mat that he slept on during his years in prison for a seat at the South African presidential residence, becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa in May of 1994.

A legend behind bars
Imprisoned in 1962, Mandela’s name became synonymous with the struggle for freedom in South Africa even though millions had never seen his picture. During the now infamous Rivonia trial, he and other revolutionary leaders including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada were charged and found guilty of sabotage and other offences that carried the maximum sentence of death in apartheid-era South Africa. Only pressure from the international community spared them from the ropes.

Mandela, who was born in the rural village of Mvezo in what is now part of the Eastern Cape, was soon moved from a maximum security prison in Pretoria to Robben Island, a place that had been built to incarcerate enemies of the state. A small island in the Atlantic, Robben Island is only about 25 kilometres from Cape Town. It is here that many opponents of the apartheid regime were imprisoned as the struggle for emancipation continued in South Africa for decades.

With resistance in South Africa reaching its peak and international pressure mounting to free Mandela and other political prisoners, former South African president, FW de Klerk took the world by surprise when he revealed on 2 February, 1990, that Mandela would be released from prison. The announcement was greeted with celebrations in the streets of South Africa.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote about the moment: “When I walked out of prison my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”