11 February 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from prison

On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for his activities in the African National Congress (ANC) opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He was sent to Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail doing hard labour, literally breaking rocks, and allowed just one visit every six months.

But as the 20th century headed into its final decade, things were beginning to change in South Africa. In 1989, FW de Klerk was elected president. Apartheid was still in force, but de Klerk soon set about liberalising laws, and lifted the ban on some proscribed organisations, including the ANC, which had been banned for 30 years. He also ordered the release of Mandela.

And so, on this day in 1990, at 16:14, clutching the hand of his wife, Winnie, Mandela emerged from Victor Versa prison, having been unconditionally released (in 1985 president PW Botha offered to release Mandela on the condition that he renounce violence – Mandela refused.)

A huge crowd greeted him. Helicopters swarmed overhead, beaming the images live around the world. He got into a BMW and was driven to Cape Town. There, he addressed a crowd of 50,000 from the balcony of the town hall.

“Our march to freedom is irreversible”, he said. “Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive.”

He demanded the “immediate ending of the state of emergency and the freeing of all political prisoners”, and appealed to the world at large, saying “to lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid”.

Apartheid was finally abolished in a whites-only referendum in 1992. And in 1994, the country held its first multi-racial elections, with the ANC winning 63% of the vote. A “government of unity” was formed, with Mandela as its president.

Also on this day

11 February 1826: England gets its third university

London University – later University College, London – was founded on this day in 1826, becoming in the process England’s third university. Read more here.