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1990: Greeting the 'father of a nation'

Richard Ramsden's father worked in the British diplomatic service and he spent much of his childhood in Africa.

He attended the multi-racial school Waterford Kamhlaba, Swaziland, at the same time as Nelson Mandela's daughters.

He lived in Cape Town for 12 years and was there the day of the anti-apartheid campaigner's release on 11 February 1990.

Rumours had been growing over weeks. Finally an announcement was made. I dropped everything to join a huge crowd waiting for him in front of the Cape Town City Hall.

There was a tremendous surge of feeling. Like many others I'd lost friends and neighbours to political violence during the dark years of apartheid. The hope for the future that I and so many others felt that day rippled through the crowd.

The branches of the trees in front of the Town Hall were stripped by people climbing them to get a better view.

People were literally falling from the trees, which began to resemble bare scarecrows.

For a few foot soldiers of the struggle that day was an opportunity for self-aggrandisement, however most of the crowd simply waited patiently in the hot sun. A few people tried to incite unrest by throwing bottles and damaging nearby shops. A man that I restrained was clearly an agent provocateur of the old regime.

Finally we managed to see and hear the father of a nation that had yet to be born. A man who was barely recognisable to us (as no photos had been published of him for so long), and yet who seemed so familiar to most South Africans.

A few years later I had the opportunity to meet Mandela. He wanted to chat briefly about his daughters, who had been at school with me in Swaziland.

Like many others I was struck by his powerful presence. What struck me too was the ease and balance with which he was able to talk about personal matters to someone who was essentially a stranger. In my mind, one of the marks of a great man.

In Context
Richard Ramsden left South Africa in 2000.

He now lives in Australia and works as a management consultant.


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Waterford Kamhlaba College
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