Celebrating Mandela’s Release: Trafalgar Square, 11 February 1990

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail thousands of people converged on the South African Embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square to celebrate the occasion.  For the previous 46 months, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had maintained their Non-Stop Picket for the release of Mandela on that pavement.  Although only a small proportion of the crowd who gathered on the day of his release had ever directly participated in the Picket, its continuous presence over those four years had clearly seeped into Londoners’ consciousness.  That day, the pavement outside the South African Embassy became the place to be.

The crowd anticipating Mandela's release (Photo: Jon Kempster)

Something of the atmosphere that day was captured by Tony Benn in his published diary The End of an Era (1994):

Had a phone call telling me that Mandela would be released today and  asking me to go to Trafalgar Square at 12.30. There were hundreds of people gathered there, and the organisers were, of course the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, who have been picketing outside Trafalgar Square non-stop for 1395 days…  People were singing and waving there arms and kissing and hugging. Somebody had draped on Nelson’s column a banner with the words ‘Nelson Mandela’s Column’…  It was a marvellous event… I don’t think there has been anything like it since 1945 when the war ended. On television live from Cape Town was Mandela, this tall, slim, distinguished man with a strong voice, walking out of prison and reaffirming the need for the armed struggle.

One former City Group activist gives his own account of the day (including an interesting observation about Tony Benn’s reception by some in the crowd):

I arrived fairly early in the morning when it was still very quiet. Other City Group people began to arrive, and it started like a typical City Group rally. ANC people were there too and setting up a stage and amplification equipment. They were actually very friendly and appreciated our presence. As more and more young black South Africans arrived, it became more and more and ANC event.  “Free Nelson Mandela” and Miriam Makeba records were sounded through the amplifiers. Speeches were made, by various people, including Tony Benn, who was heckled by some about the 1967 Namibian uranium incident. The young South Africans started to sing, and then they were toyi toying. It was wonderful! I felt as though I was at a real South African celebration and I was too!  The general atmosphere was electrifying although I did encounter a small amount of hostility when I took a break from singing and dancing to distribute leaflets to the crowd. “I didn’t come here for this!” snarled an indignant woman. But most people were joyful about the great news and full of admiration for what we’d done. (Francis)

For those who had been a regular part of the Non-Stop Picket, this was a day of celebration.  It was the culmination of what they had been campaigning for and provided a genuine sense of victory.  When asked if there were specific days on the Picket that they particularly remembered, many former picketers identified this day:

The demo when Nelson Mandela was released and we just shut London down.  ….  I lost my voice for three days. I still get emotional when I see him on TV (Jacky)

And of course the day Mandela was released. The incredible swell of people, completely taking the police by surprise until we took over Trafalgar Square. … A wonderful day. It started out quite small with a sense of “is it really happening” I think. I can’t quite remember who was on the megaphone when the announcement came over (Richard perhaps?). The crowds grew and grew, the police couldn’t cope. There was impromptu partying and music making on the steps of [St Martin-in-the-Fields church], and just hundreds of people. (Nicole)

Many young people from across the world had been part of the Non-Stop Picket over the previous four years.  For those who had left London by the time of Mandela’s release, not being present on the Picket on the day of his release was (and still is) a source of hurt and regret. Beth’s comments give a clear sense of this:

[I] was already back in Brazil….   I felt as if I had run miles, to fall some inches from the finish line….was awful not to be there.

Large crowd celebrates Mandela’s release (Photo: Annie)

Francis’s comments [above] demonstrate a generosity of spirit and a recognition that that day was a day of celebration not just for City Group activists, but for exiled ANC members and other progressive South Africans in the UK, as well as a far wider layer of people who were against apartheid.  If relations between the ANC and City Group had been tense for many years [as I have outlined in other blog posts], on 11 February 1990 (despite some tense exchanges between individuals) a spirit of temporary cooperation more or less held.  Nevertheless, many regular picketers felt quite territorial about the pavement and pointedly questioned where these hundreds of revellers had been for the previous four years.

Although City Group had always stated that they would maintain the Non-Stop Picket until Mandela’s release, the protest did not end the day he walked free from jail.  The Non-Stop Picket kept going for another fortnight.  In part this extension occurred out of concern that the apartheid regime were not acting in good faith and that restrictions might be placed on Mandela’s freedom, or that right-wing paramilitaries might make an attempt on his life.  The delay also gave City Group time to plan their strategy for campaigning post-Picket and allowed the group to come together to celebrate their achievements, closing down the Picket on their own terms.  The final day of the Picket, as I shall explain in the near future, provoked a far more mixed emotional response from picketers.

Were you in Trafalgar Square on 11 February 1990? What are your memories of the day?

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Interview material and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Celebrating Mandela’s Release: Trafalgar Square, 11 February 1990

  1. Yes, I was there on the day, but had been walking passed the picket with my kids when the actual announcement of Mandela’s impending release was made. Richard called us over to listen to the radio. We were filmed by an ITN crew I think – or maybe Sky – celebrating as the news was read out by the BBC. In today’s parlance, it was immense!

    On the day of Mandela’s release we fired off a few bottles of champagne, aiming one at Tony Benn as he spoke – the cork missed him by a whisker, but he got soaked. To say the day was a joyous occasion would be a vast understatement. “Free Nelson Mandela” was played at least a hundred times and at one point there was a conga snaking round the whole square. I ended up in the fountains with Terry I think – it was freezing.

    Like Jacky I lost my voice too. What a very happy day…

  2. Nicki says:

    The World Service were looking for someone to interview who’d actually been on the picket for the past four years. I said fine and was about to climb over the crash barrier to speak to the reporter when I remembered I was seven months pregnant (but wearing a big coat so it wasn’t that noticeable to the reporters!) so I had to walk around…

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  6. Daniela says:

    Yes I was there and it was an amazing atmosphere, everybody happy, hugging and sharing plastic glasses with champagne…such a precious moment!

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  8. Rebekah Copas says:

    I had friends from Australia visiting me in Oxford, and I scandalously announced my intention to leave town on the next bus for London as soon as I saw the media reports. Eventually, a group of us Aussies turned up at the picket, although it was only myself who had been attending the picket regularly, everybody wanted to be there that day.

  9. Pingback: Stopping the Non-Stop Picket, 24 February 1990 | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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