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Mandela's walk to freedom - I was there

By Jon Snow

Updated on 11 February 2010

On the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, Jon Snow remembers being there as he began his walk to freedom.

Nelson Mandela's walk to freedom (Reuters)

I was there! Can it be 20 years since he walked to freedom? We had no idea even what he looked like as we waited for his promised release. We clasped a 27-year-old photo of a swarthy, dark-haired man with a centre parting.

Which would be Mandela amid the throng surging around his hut at the far end of the prison? Our vantage point was on the road outside the prison gates.

We were not allowed independently to film Mandela’s release. SABC, the apartheid regime’s still new state TV outfit, was the sole broadcaster. Madela was an hour late. I was commentating live to London. At one point the bulky Afrikaans cameraman fell asleep and his camera drooped on its tripod.

What was I to say of the range of shoes and legs still transmitting live to London? I told it as it was: "So little do these people care, they’ve fallen asleep," I said.

I cared. I had been thrown out of university for an anti-apartheid sit-in. When I saw him, I knew it was him, striding, arm held high , finger’s intertwined with Winnie’s. I cried, and not for the last time. I was completely overwhelmed. There was no need to say anything, I wouldn't have been able to. In any case, each frame of film told a thousand words.

And he did not disappoint.

From a blog posted by Jon Snow on 29 April 2009

I am still in no doubt that talking to Nelson Mandela in 1994, before he even became president of South Africa, was that.

The amazing thing was that, if anything, he seemed more interested in me than even I was in him. He made eye contact. No spin doctor had got to him. He simply answered the questions you asked him. Have a look.

From Jonathan Miller's blog

The memory of that heady day clashing with the reality of the "New South Africa" two decades on, where the dreams of the country's black underclass remain unfulfilled.

Less than a year ago, as South Africans were about to vote Zuma into power, I wandered around Alexandra township, not far from the gleaming towers of Johannesburg's financial district, with Justice Malala, well known for his biting political commentaries.

"This is the reality," he told me as we walked past shanty shacks and open sewers.

"These are the people whose dreams and aspirations have not been met. They still live on hope," he said.

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