Nic Wolpe recalls the moment Nelson Mandela was released and what it meant for his family

PUBLISHED: Tue, 11 Feb 2020 22:26:13 GMT

The REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED and we were going home.

Nic Wolpe, the son of struggle lawyer Harold Wolpe, who spent most of his life in political exile in London, recalls the moment Nelson Mandela was released and what it meant for his family. 

We are all in the lounge sitting in front of the TV watching a momentous occasion. The release of Nelson Mandela from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence for the ideals of a free non-racial, non-sexist, just and democratic South Africa for all.

As Mandela with Winnie walking alongside him take those final few steps to Freedom, the world is witnessing a seminal moment in 20th-century history and a seismic shift in South Africa’s political landscape and order. A change that just a few years ago looked highly improbable.

In 1985 South Africa was in the grip of a state of emergency. Its hard-line State President PW Botha instructed Security forces to clamp down on all opposition to apartheid. The Liberation Movement looked far from achieving its liberation struggle ideals and goals. 1990 and the release of Mandela looked a far-off reality.

In one of the few conversations, I had with my father, who would have been in all probability sentenced to life in prison, along with Nelson Mandela and the others at the Rivonia Trial had he not broken out of prison, remarked that one of his biggest regrets would be that he would not be buried in South Africa.

I was not only taken aback by this comment but also struck by it, as my father was one for not showing or expressing emotion. I heard in his voice the deep pain and sorrow he felt about this. For the first time, it gave me a glimpse and sense into how he felt about South Africa, his home and country of his birth. I never really associated patriotism with him as it was something that I had never witnessed from him or seen him express or feel.

He was a South African through and through and South Africa was his blood and it was his place of birth. He was a son of the African soil, and even after 27 years in exile, the spirit of South Africa had not left him. In fact, when he spoke of home, a slight, but ever so slight twinkle would dance gently across his eyes. You sensed and felt his yearning and longing to return home. But he could not and would not until the abhorrent racially skewed and inhumane system of apartheid had been defeated and all charges of sabotage against him dropped.

He and my mother would occasionally reminisce about home, about holidays at Plettenburg Bay and Cape Town. He would fondly recall times spent on Clifton beach. Though they both didn’t talk much about home, well not to me anyway, it was clearly home for them.

As we watched Nelson Mandela, with his fist clenched walk free, I felt a sense of fear, anxiety and trepidation permeate the living room. Though there was a sense of euphoria and joy in what we were witnessing there was also a sense of foreboding as the realisation that our years in exile were coming to end. What did this mean? What did the future hold for us as a family and as individuals? We had spent the past 27 years in the UK. The UK had become our home, even though it was not our home. This may sound like tautology, a double negative, but while the UK offered sanctuary, security and safety it was not our home, real home. What do I mean by this? I never really felt settled or assimilated into the British way of life I never really felt British. I always felt that I was an outsider looking in. I am not sure whether it was of my own making and doing. Maybe I purposefully set out to isolate myself and not to assimilate myself into the British way of life. I have a vivid memory as an 8-year-old, standing in the small spare bedroom next to mine, where I would be banished too when Joe Slovo would come and stay, telling myself that first and foremost I was a South African and that South Africa was my home and that one day, I didn’t know when I would return home. Maybe it was this decision which, subconsciously set me on my course of isolation, of feeling apart from and not part of.

In hindsight, this was an interesting decision given that though South Africa was still very much part of our daily lives and existence the reality was it had become a country unfamiliar to us. For me it was a country I had no memory, sense of or feeling for. Following my father’s escape from Marshall Square Prison, which were police holding cells, my mother was subsequently arrested and interrogated by the Security Police. Following several weeks of intimidating brutish interrogation by the Security Police, Joel Joffe, who was representing her, following her brother’s arrest for sabotage, for feeding the Chickens at Liliesleaf, negotiated a deal with the Security Police. They gave her 24 hours in which to leave the country. I cannot begin to fathom, comprehend or understand what my mother went through during this period. It was not only frightening, painful but also traumatic for her.

England had become our home and it was what we were familiar with.

As Nelson Mandela stepped out from the prison grounds into freedom, we applauded, and my father and mother glowed with happiness. The struggle that they had both in their own ways dedicated their lives to had born fruit and the release of Nelson Mandela represented the beginning and start of a new era in South African politics.

While we all rejoiced in the moment, the thought of what next hung heavy in the air. While the commentator was talking of this momentous moment, conversation turned to what next? What did this mean for the family? My two sisters. Peta and Tessa, both had anxious looks on their faces. The reality of what this meant without being said struck home.  They knew what it meant but didn’t want to hear it or face reality. Eventually, Tessa turns to our father and says what does this mean. Without hesitation, he says this means I am returning home. Just like that. No thought or discussion. Though Nelson Mandela had been released, the long journey towards true equality and justice for all was only now just beginning.

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