In 1988, on this day the authorities at the maximum security Pollsmoor Prison confirmed the tragic death in custody of Nelson Mandela.
Truth & ReconciliationMandela had inspired continued support among South Africa's black population. And his imprisonment had become a major issue in countries worldwide that disapproved of the apartheid system, many of whom had banned the import of South African goods. The economy already in sharp decline, now the security of the country was plunged into chaos by the furious reaction to his death. The apartheid system appeared to be entering a catastrophic end-game despite the hidden moves of progressive elements including Mandela himself.
Because in 1982 Mandela been moved from Robben Island where he had been imprisoned since 1964.
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In isolation from the general prison population it was hoped that he could perhaps enter into secret negotiations with the apartheid government. And only recently Mandela had signalled his intention to start a new peace process which might lead to a multiracial future for South Africa. Because a circle of forward-thinking ministers recognised an historic opportunity for a peaceful transition by releasing Mandela. Surely only the iconic image of Mandela stepping forth as a free man would draw a line under the tragic past.
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But his death in custody now made such a gesture impossible.
The leadership of the African National Congress knew nothing of these plans. Mandela had been on the verge of contacting the ANC President Oliver Tambo but upon his arrival at Pollsmoor he was hospitalized for tuberculosis.
Denials of mistreatment were largely ignored at home and abroad.
Trouble was the apartheid government had been discredited by the inescapable comparison to seemingly similiar events of eight years before. Because in August 1977, police had falsely claimed that Steve Biko had died as a result of a hunger strike whilst in custody. "Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not able to forgive".A post-mortem examination proved that his death was caused by blows to the head. It later emerged that Biko had been unconscious whilst being driven 1,190 km (740 miles) from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. The police were absolved of blame, leading to public outcry around the world.
Instead of Nelson Mandela, his wife of thirty years, Winnie now emerged as the leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle and in 1991 was appointed Deputy President of the ANC in order to take the struggle into its final phase. "Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts," Mandela said. "To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not able to forgive". Mandela also called on the international community to retain sanctions against South Africa until apartheid was ended1. In July, she replaced Oliver Tambo who was seriously ill. At this time seemingly manufactured rumours emerged that she was involved in the abduction of four youths in 1989, one of whom, Stompie Seipei was later murdered.
In September 1992, an agreement was reached with President de Klerk to speed the creation of an interim government under which reforms could take place. And in 1993, a government of national unity was formed after free, non-racial elections. Both Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end apartheid. And in April 1994, Mandela was elected the first black President of the Republic of South Africa.
Only later would it emerge that something had in fact gone horribly wrong.