By 1990, many South Africans had never known a world in which Nelson Mandela was a free man. The renowned anti-apartheid campaigner had been under lock and key since 1964, when he was sentenced to life in prison for organizing armed resistance to South Africa’s white minority government. He had served 18 years at the notorious prison at Robben Island, where he spent his days doing hard labor in a lime quarry, and later contracted tuberculosis while languishing in a damp cell at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.

South African officials had tried to make Mandela disappear. They rarely granted him visitations, and made it a criminal offense to publish his photo or any of his writings. Yet his legend only grew during his years behind bars. The anti-apartheid African National Congress made him into a symbol of government injustice, and by the 1980s, the international community had rallied to his cause. “Free Mandela” became a common refrain in pop songs and protests across the globe, and many national governments began levying sanctions against South Africa.

Mandela never lost his resolve while in prison—he even turned down several conditional offers for his release—and he eventually used his celebrity to enter into secret talks with the South African government regarding the country’s tenuous political situation. By late-1988, Mandela had been moved to more livable quarters at Victor Verster Prison, where he regularly held court with South African officials and foreign dignitaries alike. At Mandela’s urging, South African President F.W. de Klerk broke rank with his party and ordered the release of several prominent black political prisoners in 1989. Shortly thereafter, de Klerk took the first steps toward reversing South Africa’s apartheid policies.

Mandela only found out about his own release on February 10, 1990—the night before he was to be set free. “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could,” he later wrote in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” “but to do so on such short notice would not be wise.” During a meeting with President de Klerk, he tried to have his release pushed back a week so he could have time to organize with his family and the African National Congress. De Klerk refused, and Mandela was forced to scramble to make last minute plans with his team. “It was a tense moment,” Mandela later said of the meeting, “and, at the time, neither of us saw any irony in a prisoner asking not to be released and his jailer attempting to release him.”

A Sowetan holds up a newspaper announcing Mandela's release. (Credit: Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
A Sowetan holds up a newspaper announcing Mandela’s release. (Credit: Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

The following afternoon, an exuberant Mandela exited Victor Verster Prison and took his first steps as a free man in 27 years. The 71-year-old had only expected a small welcoming party, but as he strode through the prison gates hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie, he was greeted by thousands of swarming well-wishers and a brigade of reporters. For a man who had just spent the better part of three decades in a jail cell, the reception was almost too much to take. “I was astounded and a little bit alarmed,” he later wrote. “Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in…It was a happy, if slightly disorienting chaos.” If the boisterous reception was Mandela’s first indication of how famous he’d become during his years of confinement, it also offered reminders of how much the world had changed. He later recalled that when one newsman shoved a modern microphone in his face, he “recoiled slightly, wondering if it were some newfangled weapon developed while I was in prison.”

After braving the adoring crowd, Mandela and his wife were ushered into a car and driven toward Cape Town, where he was scheduled to give a speech in a public square known as the Grand Parade. As the motorcade approached the site, Mandela’s driver inadvertently steered too close to the sea of gathered supporters, who began pounding on the windows in celebration. “Inside it sounded like a massive hailstorm,” Mandela wrote. “Then people began to jump on the car in their excitement. Others began to shake it and at that moment I began to worry. I felt as though the crowd might very well kill us with their love.” The car finally broke free from the mob after more than an hour, at which point the chauffeur sped away from the city center in panic. Mandela was forced to make a detour to the home of one of his lawyers, where he stopped to have a cold drink and catch his breath. He had only been there for a few minutes when he received a frantic phone call from the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Nelson, you must come back to the Grand Parade immediately,” Tutu urged. “The people are growing restless. If you do not return straightaway I cannot vouch for what will happen. I think there might be an uprising!”

Mandela delivers his first speech following his release on February 11, 1990. (Credit: Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images)
Mandela delivers his first speech following his release on February 11, 1990. (Credit: Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images)

Mandela raced back to the Grand Parade and located a back entrance to Cape Town’s City Hall. Outside, some 100,000 South Africans impatiently awaited his appearance. Some had begun looting nearby stores, and shots rang out when police tried to control the crowd. At dusk, Mandela finally strode onto the City Hall balcony to a deafening roar of cheers and applause. He’d accidentally left his reading glasses in prison, so he wore his wife’s pair as he began reading his prepared remarks. “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans,” he said, “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Mandela closed the speech by repeating a famous line from an address he’d given at his trial in 1964. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said. “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 for which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

After leaving the Grand Parade, Mandela passed his first night of freedom resting at Archbishop Tutu’s home. He would not be idle for long. The repressive system that had seen him spend more than a third of his life in prison was still in effect, and he spent the next several months traveling abroad to meet with world leaders and give speeches against apartheid. South Africa would endure four more years of controversy and mob violence before Mandela, de Klerk and others finally negotiated an end to white-only rule. “The road to freedom was far from smooth,” Mandela later acknowledged.

The fervent public support that Nelson Mandela had experienced upon his release later carried him all the way to the presidency during South Africa’s first multiracial election in 1994. On the day of his inauguration, the former prisoner addressed a crowd of joyous South Africans and looked toward a future free of racial violence. “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people,” he said. “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”