He Danced!

Abby Zimet

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's walk to freedom after 27 years in prison, and the beginning of the end of apartheid. A few months later, he made his first U.S. appearance in Boston. The mood was electric. Hundreds of thousands of people packed Boston Common, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, jammed so tight together that I could only sink straight down cross-legged onto the grass, feet and knees close on all sides, my computer on my lap, to start writing.

Mandela was almost four hours later than advertised; we never found out why. While we waited, musicians – I only remember Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo – entertained us. Nobody needed much entertaining; it was enough, it seemed, to be there. Finally, a stir in the crowd, a rustle on the stage. And Mandela appeared. Small, a bit bent over, grinning like you've never seen anyone grin and pumping his fist in the fierce air. The crowd went wild. Giddy and triumphant, they cheered and cheered him, fists likewise high in the air. Mandela grinned some more. And then – a wonder – he danced a little jig. Such joy. Never seen, or felt, anything like it since.   

From Cyril Ramaphosa, then head of the miners' union, now a successful businessman, at jubilant celebrations in South Africa: "(Former president) De Klerk did not free Mandela, you did. De Klerk did
not end apartheid, you the people did."

A remembrance of the day of his release from another then-young South African here

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