Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Mandela Release That Never Was

This week it is 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. In my unpublished new book “Traitor’s Daughter” I reminisce about those mad times when I worked as a BBC Producer in Johannesburg.

The new decade had arrived with a big bang or so we all thought. As New Year’s Day 1990 drew to a close, the foreign press community in Johannesburg simultaneously received a message on our pagers to say that Nelson Mandela had been released that afternoon. That message jolted us all into action. Ten weeks before they had released Mandela’s fellow prisoners like that. In the early hours of the morning of 15 October 1989, prison vehicles dropped off Walter Sisulu and all his possessions at his Orlando West home. On that occasion I was also paged to rush over there.

Now on New Year’s day the BBC team rushed to the office in Richmond, near Auckland Park. Although we had never ever had a practice drill, any army general could have been proud of our BBC efforts on that day. As I parked my car with the necessary screeching of tyres, the first to arrive, I was followed within seconds by cameraman Richard Atkinson, video editors and BBC correspondent Colin Blane. We were pulling in one after another, pulling handbrakes, jumping out and running into the offices, switching on machines as we went. No one had summoned anyone. Colin, had in fact just left my house after an afternoon running through the various release options while enjoying a bottle (or two) of fine South African wine.

I started pulling wire copy to see what SAPA was bringing on it and hitting the phones. This was pre-internet and pre-mobile phones. It was the end of the New Year’s Day and most South Africans were recovering from a mega-hangover, even Government types. We were trying to reach Winnie Mandela, elusive at the best of times, and at that stage living at about three addresses. The BBC London Desk immediately panicked and wanted to pull the BBC’s southern Africa Correspondent James Robbins from his holiday in the Eastern Transvaal. Colin Blane, the BBC’s East Africa correspondent, down from Nairobi to cover for James, and I, felt we had to verify the story first. After about 90 minutes of various phone calls we realised it was a hoax. By that time we were all stone cold sober.

It may have been a hoax, but from then on, we maintained that frenetic pace. For the next two months it seemed as if we were working day and night.”

© Anli Serfontein, Traitor’s Daughter - 2010. Unpublished manuscript. All rights reserved by the author.