A Look Back at Newspaper Reports on Mandela’s Release, 25 years ago

Yesterday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary since Nelson Mandela walked free – on 11 February 1990 – after 27 years in apartheid prison. It was an event that had been unthinkable to most South Africans, and the world, until only a few weeks before. Here is a fascinating look back at how South African newspapers reported on the news…

It was such a HUGE event that it prompted LARGE-type headlines on the front pages of all the country’s newspapers for many days.

It began on 2 February 1990 when then-President FW de Klerk announced in Parliament the lifting of the State of Emergency, the unbanning of liberation movements such as the ANC, and the imminent release of political prisoners – including Mandela.

This is how it was reported in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper the next morning (3 February 1990):


Mandela South Africa

4 February 1990 – The full text of De Klerk’s speech was carried in The Star the following day:

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11 February 1990 – Just before the release, the first photo of Mandela the world had seen in 27 years was distributed to newspapers. It was such a powerful and significant image that editors all seemed to have the same thought.

Mandela South Africa
4 February 1990 – The full text of De Klerk’s speech was carried in The Star the following day.

11 February 1990 – South Africa’s two major national Sunday newspapers had identical headlines and an almost identical layout on the day of Mandela’s release.

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12 February 1990 – Founded in 1985, the Weekly Mail was often a lone voice in anti-apartheid news reporting in the turbulent closing years of the eighties.

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12 February 1990 – Even the pro-apartheid Beeld Afrikaans-language newspaper was upbeat about Mandela’s release:

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12 February 1990 – After Mandela’s historic speech to an estimated 100 000-strong crowd in Cape Town on 11 February, the people of Johannesburg eagerly awaited their turn.

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12 February 1990 – The Weekly Mail reprinted portions of Mandela’s Cape Town speech in its special edition.

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12 February 1990 – A montage of images in the Weekly Mail special edition reflected South Africa’s euphoria…

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12 February 1990 – …while a spread in The Star showed how far the euphoria had spread.

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16 February 1990 – The cover of a special edition on Nelson Mandela included in the Weekly Mail on the following Friday, the newspaper’s normal day of publication.

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16 February 1990 – A page from the Weekly Mail special edition explored Mandela’s roots.

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16 February 1990 – The front page of the Sowetan special edition.

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16 February 1990 – A montage in Vrye Weekblad, an important Afrikaans-language anti-apartheid newspaper, showed global newspapers’ coverage of Mandela’s release.

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18 February 1990 – The first steps towards a negotiated settlement had begun. But it would be four long, chaotic and bloody years until South Africa was able to hold its first democratic elections in 1994.

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26 February 1990 – The euphoria began to abate as violence flared in KwaZulu-Natal, and news of apartheid death squads began to emerge. South Africa’s transformation had begun, but the rebirth would not be easy.

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Compiled by: Mary Alexander Source: Media Club South Africa

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