We worked frantically through the night to call together out activists and put all the logistics in place for a normal rally: designed and printed pamphlets and posters, distributed them, organised transport, sound systems, marshals to control the crowd, all the usual things.
But because we only heard about the release on Saturday evening, we were just not able to track down any of the companies from which usually hire walkie talkies, so we had no means of communication the next day – and it was long before the days of cell phones!
I left the office and drove into town just before noon on the day that Mandela was released. I realised that this would be an huge event when I saw many cars on the road to town on a Sunday morning – it was busy like on a normal working day. People turned out on a scale we had never before seen and had just not thought possible - I estimate that there were well over 100 000 people on The Parade that day. When I arrived I was overwhelmed by how many people were already there, even though it was two hours before the rally was due to start.
The crowd was growing by the minute and our marshals, who were unarmed, formed the usual semi-circle in front of the steps and to keep clear the area with the press and the sound system. As the crowd kept growing, it soon became a battle to maintain our line. Not only was the crowd massive and kept growing, but many people were pushing and shoving as they determined to get to the front to be close to Mandela.
For the first time we had to deal with gangsters who also turned out in large numbers to see Mandela, and were very aggressive about getting to the front. Soon it turned into combat as we tried to keep them at bay - marshals were physically harassed and threatened with knives and it was not very long before our cordon collapsed. Though we managed to keep the front of the City Hall secure, some gangsters even managed to force their way into the City Hall at the back and we had to chase them through the passages.
By about 2.30 there was a massive crowd – in front there was a huge crush with people being unable to move and just being swept along by “waves” swirling through the crowd. It was also very hot and from the balcony we could see people (including journalists) passing out in the crush. The only way to retrieve them from the crowd was for them to be passed over the heads of the crowd and dragged up onto the balcony.
Meanwhile, people were desperate to get better vantage points - the roofs of the kiosks around the Parade were caving from the weight of the people crowded on top of them – others climbed the palm trees, and many came tumbling down as the branches broke. In front, the press tower was taken over and literally hundreds of people crowded onto it until it collapsed.
The mood was expectant and euphoric, but people were getting impatient with the long delay, and we realised that people may die if we did not do something drastic. We persuaded Alan (Boesak, a priest and leading anti-Apartheid activist) and Archbishop Tutu to lead people on a march to District Six, where we told them Mandela would address them. Thousands followed them and it helped a lot to dissipate the pressure of the crowd, but they all came back when they realised they’d been tricked.
At some stage, some of the gangsters started looting a few shops at the back edges of the Parade, and it became even more chaotic when the police started firing with shotguns. Fortunately it was brought under control fairly quickly !
In the midst of all this, Jesse Jackson (who was then a presidential candidate in the US elections) arrived in a Mercedes Benz, followed by a van carrying his bodyguards. Marshals tried to guide them to the back entrance of the City Hall, but apparently Jackson insisted in going in through “the people”. His bodyguards managed to get him to the front of the City Hall and then they realised that they were in deep trouble as they just could not get to the steps at the side. Thus he had to be lifted up by them and while those on top helped to pull him up the stone wall of the balcony - not a very dignified entrance for a presidential candidate. His traumatised wife had to be passed over the heads of the crowd and also lifted on to the balcony.
Just before Mandela was due to arrive, the sound system stopped working because of the sheer weight of the crowd on the cables linking it to the City Hall.
When we finally we got a message that Mandela was approaching we had a quick meeting and we decided to try and delay him because we did not know what would happen if he appeared and there was no sound for his speech. I rushed to the highway and managed to intercept the convoy and agreed with Trevor that they should be diverted to the Civic Centre and wait there until we had sound restored.
However, the traffic cops leading Mandela’s car somehow got away and drove on with him. The arrangements was that they would bring Mandel via the back entrance of the City Hall, but they took the wrong turning and lead his car straight into the swirling crowd in front of the City Hall. His car was trapped in the crowd for what seemed like an age and could barely move as people were crushed against the car by the swirling crowd.
Eventually, the driver somehow managed to get out and drive away. Madiba, who had not been in a crowd for 27 years, was very upset and they took him out of the city to regroup. He later had to be persuaded to return when he was finally tracked down via the radio of the traffic cops who were with him.
We were terrified that the city was going to burn that night if he did not come back to address the crowd. It was chaotic; people were climbing up to the front of the balcony, hanging on to railings.