When Nelson Mandela was released on 11 February 1990 I was invited to sit in the ITV television studio in London to comment on the live video feed from South Africa that was broadcast to hundreds of tv stations around the world. Nelson and his wife Winnie stopped the car in which they were travelling just inside the prison grounds and walked hand-in-hand into freedom. I told the story of the prisons security chief who said we would never walk out of prison on our own feet and here was the last of our group now walking out from behind the walls. It was a moment that changed my life in many ways. There was a sense of fulfilment, a sense that perhaps I need not be quite so intense about the freedom struggle. Ez remarked to friends that I was much more open to talk about prison and all those years away from real life. I said over the airwaves that I had a deep seated wish to return to South Africa to embrace him. I had last seen him on the day we were sentenced to life imprisonment. Thereafter we were segregated. He and the others were taken away and held on the Robben Island.
Now things had moved on. A group of ANC comrades drove down together from Stockholm to Arlanda International Airport some thirty kilometres outside the city. Nelson and Winnie were flying in on that day.
The plane touched down and rolled to its parking place. The door opened, steps were pushed into place, and the carefully arranged line of dignitaries, anti-apartheid movement officials, ANC members and others, lost its precision as we all pushed forward. The line was curved, I am not tall, and I could not see where he was. Then the press photographers and television crews heralded his advance down the line by backing into us and butting us aside.
Suddenly, from amidst the melee, Nelson stood in front of me. We shook hands quite formally. He held both of my hands. I held both of his. Silence. This tall, older friend and comrade stood there looking tired and gaunt. Receiving lines are a bit like hell. They press in on one. “Hello, Nel,” I said, “We’ve not met since the day we were sentenced.” “That’s right. You look good, Boy,” he replied, and embraced me. Without too much thought I took off my ANC scarf and placed it round his neck. Winnie followed him.
……. What a crush there was at the formal reception. OR Tambo was recovering in Sweden from a series of strokes that resulted from his untiring efforts to lead us to freedom. He had held our movement together for 30 years in exile through his outstanding leadership. It was very moving to see OR, as he was known to one and all, glowing with the pleasure of his first meeting with Nelson. They had not met for thirty years since O.R. had left South Africa in 1960 to establish the external ANC. These two friends, comrades in the ANC, partners in the first law practice opened by black South Africans, were back together again.
They sat in adjacent armchairs as we well-wishers stopped first to greet OR and then Nelson. Nelson was in much more relaxed mood laughing and smiling and revelling in being with close friends. He exchanged delightful stories with Wolfie Kodesh who had housed him and cared for him for a large part of the time that he’d been underground before his capture in September 1962.
After the initial excitement I felt a new sense of completeness. Now all the comrades I had been sentenced with were out of prison and I had met them all.