Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley spent 28 years photographing South Africa’s struggles of apartheid. Having documented the life of Nelson Mandela and his people, Turnley reflects for LightBox on his memories of Mandela on the day of his release from prison.
I go to sleep early on Feb. 10, 1990, as the next day will be one of the most important historic days of my career. I receive a call from a dear friend and photojournalist colleague. He tells me that he is sorry to inform me but the South African photographers association has decided to make Nelson Mandela’s release from prison a pool event and that only five photographers would be allowed in front of the prison. I respond that, respectfully, I can guarantee him that I would be the next morning in front of that prison — this was a moment of importance for the whole world to see.
I arrive in front of Victor Verster prison with my twin brother photojournalist Peter Turnley at 5:30 am the next morning. A handful of our colleagues also arrive. We go to the two Afrikaaner Prison guards at the gates of the prison, introduce ourselves and ask for their help. We explain that this day is an important day for South Africa, and for the world to witness. We propose that they allow us to create a roped off area in front of the prison, where photojournalists from around the world would stand, and that we would make sure that the decorum of this event was respected. These prison guards decide that they too want to be magnanimous on this historic day, and give us the mandate to set up our area. Hundreds of photographers and reporters began to arrive, and as we explain our plan, everyone takes their one foot of space, where we stand shoulder to shoulder in anticipation for what would inevitably be just a few seconds that we will get to see Nelson Mandela before the crowds will break and obscure the next leader of South Africa.
After approximately 11 hours of holding our ground, at 4:20pm with t.v. helicopters whirring overhead, we see an entourage making its way towards the prison gate. Adrenaline surged — suddenly the prison gate opened, and marching towards us is Nelson Mandela, fist in the air, holding Winnie’s hand, as roars sound around the world. I had time to make three frames in focus — the happiest three frames of my life — before the crowd breaks and Mandela’s motorcade heads towards the center of Capetown.
I drive frantically to keep up with their motorcade as it makes its way to Capetown an hour away. When the motorcade arrives, the crowd of more than one hundred thousand South Africans excitedly shakes Madiba’s car. The motorcade escapes the crowd and races away. For the first time, I felt that I might be crushed by a crowd. I climbed over the shoulders of this sea of humanity and make my way to the balcony of city hall. I felt the urgency that I was now out of position to see Madiba if he appears. I ran down the corridor of City Hall, looking for a window to peek out of.
In front of me I saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Reverend Allan Boesak, Walter Sisulu, Madiba’s prison mate of 27 years, Jesse Jackson and a handful of others. I have landed serendipitously in the reception committee. They all know me and smile, telling me to come in and wait patiently.
No one knows where Madiba has fled, and as the crowd outside screams with anticipation and euphoria, a phone rings. Tutu grabs the phone. It is Madiba explaining that they have driven outside of town, shaken by the surging crowd after sitting alone in a prison cell for 27 years. The archbishop says, “Baba [in South Africa xhosa, papa], you have to come and at least show your face or they will tear the city down tonight. And then following a silence, the Arch puts down the phone and smiles. “He’s coming.” Minutes later, unbeknownst to any of us including the crowd, he is driven to the rear of City Hall. The door opens and in walks Nelson Mandela. He greets each person in the room, with the charm and confidence of someone who has never been gone.
Madiba is tall and in unbelievable shape. His presence is so powerful. He gives everyone a bear hug. Smiles stretch across our faces. And Archbishop Tutu clings a glass with a spoon. Directly in front of Madiba, the crowd outside is frantic with excitement, unaware that Madiba is with us. Archbishop Tutu looks into Nelson’s eyes, and with tears streaming down his face, says, “I have to tell you what you have meant to my life….” And then each person in the room follows. Madiba stands proudly receiving each heartfelt word. It is as if you can palpably see the dignity of Nelson Mandela, of each second of 27 years, proudly and clearly contained to be ready for this moment. And then, he looks at all of us.
“You will have to forgive me. I have something I have to take care of.” He proceeds to walk to the window, stepping out onto the balcony to address his South African people, and the world, for the first time in almost three decades. As the sun sets, the Mandela family and friends stand at the window, everyone’s fists raised in the air, tears streaming down their cheeks as the crowd greets their leader with the African National Anthem Nikosi Sikelela. He finishes his speech with the same words that he spoke at the end of the treason trial that sent him to prison for life in 1964.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
David Turnley is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, the Robert Capa Gold medal for courage and two World Press Pictures of the Year. Turnley is highly recognized for his coverage of South Africa over the last twenty-eight years. He is also a successful documentary filmmaker, having just completed his most recent film, SHENANDOAH (available shortly on Netflix), and is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan.
Turnley has published eight books of his photography, including his last, Mandela: Struggle and Triumph (Abrams).