Niel Barnard, head of National Intelligence, sits in front of his television in the privacy of his Pretoria home with a deep sense of satisfaction as he watches Nelson Mandela walk to freedom on a Sunday afternoon. He has been meeting this man for two years under strictly secret circumstances.

Where were you on 11 February 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed after serving a prison sentence of 27 years? Dozing in your cot, oblivious to history being made in every passing minute? A pea-sized dot in your mother’s womb? Non-existent?

We, the youth of today, have no recollection of 11 February 1990. But for countless South Africans, this is a day they will never forget. The feeling could perhaps be compared to that of 9/11. Everyone can remember where they were on 11 September 2001. But for a nation divided by law, ruled with an iron fist and on the brink of civil war, the freeing of a “terrorist” who had not been in the public eye since the day prison swallowed him in 1964, this was a moment of elation for some and of terror for others.

Mr Thatisi Machaba, lecturer in the UP Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, was one of millions of South Africans planted in front of their televisions that day. “It was quite a moving experience,” he says. Mr Machaba reveals that he had hope for the future because “none of us Africans expected him to be released”. Pippa Green, head of the UP Department of Journalism, was fully aware that that history was being made as she waited in the Grande Parade for Mandela to appear on 11 February 1990. On 11 February 2010 she wore the shirt she was given 20 years ago with a young Nelson Mandela’s face on it, and not the face of the 64-year-old man leaving what was then Victor Verster prison. She reminds her class that nobody knew what Mandela actually looked like because he had been isolated from public for so long.

Now, 20 years later, his face is recognisable to most citizens of the world. But as we celebrate the two-decade anniversary of the day South Africa changed, is the value of that day still felt by young people who are too young to remember it?

The country has undergone many changes since 1990. Mr Machaba feels that things could have been much better if the government who came into power in 1994 had been more experienced and schooled in government. However, he feels that the county’s teething problems have now been overcome.

Former ANC Secretary General, Cyril Ramaphosa, was head of Mandela’s reception committee. Twenty years later, he led the march out of what is now called Drakenstein prison. Whilst addressing supporters, he said, “When comrade Nelson Mandela was released … we knew that his freedom meant that our freedom had also arrived. As he became free we also knew that we were now free.”

South Africans now defend their freedom and democracy with fierce passion. The right to freedom in various aspects of life is entrenched in the new constitution. Do generations who survived apartheid value certain aspects of life in the new South Africa more than those who were born into it? And, do historical commemorations like 11 February hold meaning for the youth of today? They are, after all, responsible for carrying this meaning over to future generations.

Ms Karina Sevenhuysen, also from the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, notes that the youth do not really have a “historical consciousness”. Perhaps this is less true for Adriaan Van Der Dussen, third-year BA Journalism student majoring in history. He says that he is very sentimental about the day. He notes that he made extra effort to get newspaper clippings and supplements about 11 February 1990 to make sure that he knows what the day is about. His view is that most students seem “apathetic” and seem not to be aware of the significance of 11 February. “Every South African should know what the day is about.”

Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency, was also a member of Mandela’s reception committee. Twenty years down the line, he stood in front of a three meter high bronze statue of Mandela, raised his fist in the air and said, “We were here with him then, we are here with him today still.”

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