Mandela 'went missing' for a cup of tea the day he left prison

Mandela 'went missing' for a cup of tea the day he left prison
A file photo taken on June 14, 2005 shows former South African president Nelson Mandela

JOHANNESBURG - On the day Nelson Mandela walked free 25 years ago, he went missing for more than an hour somewhere between the prison gates and the venue where he was to deliver his first speech.

Mandela's convoy had left Victor Verster Prison, but never made it to Cape Town City Hall - where a huge crowd was waiting to welcome him.

In a world before mobile phones, the organisers struggled to track him down.

"Now Mandela was free, the world was waiting to see him and (ex-finance minister Trevor) Manuel had no idea where he was," said the Nelson Mandela Foundation as it last week revealed the details of just what happened that day.

"Trevor Manuel remembers Sunday 11 February 1990 as the day he lost Nelson Mandela," said the foundation.

He was later found sipping tea with his shoes off in a quiet Cape Town suburban home, his driver having made a detour to avoid the "crushing crowd" outside the city hall.

"I was wondering what had happened to you chaps," Mandela said.

It was the last of three short stops he made that day in the more than one hour he went missing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said the crowd massed around City Hall was getting restive. "I just sent word and said if he didn't come, Cape Town would be torn apart." When he finally made it, it was so dark Mandela had to read his speech by torchlight with a pair of borrowed reading glasses, his own having disappeared in the rush of his release.

February 11, 1990 marks the beginning of the dismantling of apartheid, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Mandela was sentenced to jail for life in 1964 for alleged sabotage. He served 27 years, with stays on notorious Robben Island, then in Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons.

His release came days after the country's last apartheid leader F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the African National Congress and other liberation movements.

Less racism

After tension-packed negotiations aimed at transferring power from whites to the nation's majority black population, elections were organised.

Mandela would go on to become the country's first democratically elected president in 1994. He retired after one five-year term and died on December 6, 2013 aged 95.

Twenty-five years after he walked out of prison his clenched fist raised, South Africa now boasts of having one of the world's most progressive constitutions.

"The main gain is that people have rights, people have dignity," agreed Steven Friedman, political scientist at the University of Johannesburg. "There's a black middle class in this country which didn't exist in 1994.

"There is less racism than 20 years ago."

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