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Mandela’s release: Beyond the dark cloud, a shining light

South African Graeme Williams – white skinned, if that makes this story any more complete – was brought up to believe that the apartheid regime was fundamentally unjust. So when the opportunity arose to photograph Nelson Mandela walking free from prison after 27 years of incarceration, one can only imagine Graeme’s breathless anticipation.

He describes it.

“It was all very secretive so we didn’t know it was going to happen, because the apartheid government didn’t want to get everyone worked up into a frenzy before he was released,” he says.

“(This) worked very well (for me) because if they had given several months warning, all the top, hot shot photographers in the world would have been here.”

Reuters sent Graeme to Cape Town about two days before the release from prison, on a hunch that it might happen.

“I got a call at eight o’clock one night from the government liaison saying that there was a photograph of Mandela (the first sighted in some 20 years) ready to be collected, and I screamed down to the government buildings to collect this photograph, and it was just amazing.

“I remember running to this street lamp and pulling out the photograph and going ‘hey this is him. This is the guy!’

“You just knew. You could almost feel the whole country’s expectations, and also fear. Because, you know, with a change in the country you almost felt like, what is going to happen? Is it all going to work or fall apart? But you knew it was the start of something really big.

“Then I sent the photograph and then we heard people like Jesse Jackson were flying in and we just knew, ok it’s happening.”

He speaks of the process agreed between the Reuters photographers covering the event. The chief photographer, with a “lens the size of a cricket bat”, would cover the first three steps and Graeme was to cover the next three.

“We had been standing outside Victor Vester’s prison gate. We got there probably about 8:30 in the morning and he probably came out at 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” he says. The scenes around the photographers were chaotic, with crowds pushing forward and the hot sun causing exhaustion. All of this must have been forgotten in a split second however, as the television helicopters which had been circling above, suddenly turned on their heads.

“It was this rush of adrenaline that makes your hair stand on end, and you just felt, ok he’s coming, he’s coming. And you notice after seven or eight hours of standing there that you are only going to get a minute or so to pull this picture off.

“So it’s exciting but the pressure was absolutely huge. And these helicopters were following slowly, slowly, slowly, and they came closer, closer and closer to the gate.

“And he got out, walked through the gates with Winnie and it was just like… electrifying is the only word. It was just amazing.

“We were just going click click, click click. And then the crowd pushed forward and the whole thing was over.

“So I don’t know how many seconds or minutes it lasted for… then Mandela was pushed into a car and sped away.

“Since then my photographs have been used all over the place, and they continue to get used in exhibitions, books.”

The excitement was not quelled; rather, after sending off the photograph of Mandela to Reuters, the photographers attended his speech at the Cape Town City Hall.

“It was this bizarre situation because you had this amazing moment of him talking and then there was a battle going on between the police and ANC youth, not 200 metres away… it was completely wild.

“It was just a mad day; it didn’t stop!”

That night, Nelson Mandela stayed at the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The following morning Graeme attended a photo opportunity at “the Arch’s” home.

He tells of the uninhibited access to both men, poles apart from today’s world where you would be fenced off and at best would have a far-off view of the action. Graeme describes the access as “remarkable”.

“Mandela would wander in, come shake your hand and say hi. We would say ‘we think that it will be best to sit over there for the portrait.

“But you know, it wasn’t like he was your buddy. There was huge respect and awe from the journalistic fraternity. I mean everyone was just mad about him, compared to politicians of today… there’s no comparison.”

The casualness of the encounter was made all the more exceptional by Mandela’s kind and welcoming presence.

“He was amazing from day one; everyone melted with Mandela about, because he interacted on such a personal level with everyone,” he says.

“There was no sense of ‘I’m great and you are just a photographer or just an ordinary person’. When he smiled at you and looked at you there was a real warmth and generosity. You really felt he was someone different, just from the way he treated people.

“He genuinely enjoyed people around him.

“There was the odd right leaning photographer and in his presence, you could see that all prejudices just melted away.”

Graeme felt that finally South Africa was on the precipice of something extraordinary, and “things could really be great in South Africa, and they actually were during Mandela’s time.

“It was probably the only time I really felt I would be able to say ‘I am really proud of being part of South Africa as a whole’. Before then I was just a whitey in an apartheid country.”

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From Mandela to Zuma

Graeme’s descriptions of Mandela and Tutu contrast, but are fundamentally aligned, and he has the greatest respect for both. Rather than what sounds like the kind and calm of Mandela, Archbishop Tutu was less subtle and “would come out with whatever struck him as unjust”.

“Tutu is clearly a deeply religious man, but at no time did I feel he was placing himself on a pedestal and saying,  ‘I’ve got it all right’. He was just someone who had moved into the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle because he was there and more importantly because of who he was. He took up the challenge really to be a voice against apartheid and since then, a voice against any kind of injustice.

“I think he could have been a church minister in a small village and he would have been the same person.”

In contrast to the welcoming presence of Mandela, and Archbishop Tutu, a “breath of fresh air”, Graeme photographed President Jacob Zuma in 2009.

When I asked what Zuma was like, Graeme jokes, “he listened when I told him what to do and where to look.

“The preamble to that was that Time Magazine had taken three months to secure this time with Zuma – one hour – and we had flown down to Durban (the journalist and Graeme).

“When the day came his personal aid said ‘oh no, he doesn’t know anything about it’ so it really took about seven hours of pushing before I could get 10 minutes with him.”

Graeme was fortunate. The reporter for Time Magazine was less so, having to wait one more week for the interview.

“I had to set everything up because Time Magazine wanted at least three different pictures of different background and appeal.

“So when he walked in I knew I had 10 minutes and I had to get him seated and get him to focus on what I wanted him to do, and then change things around all within 10 minutes.”

Gone are the days of old. No casual banter, no informality. Just 10 minutes alone, if you are lucky.

Tomorrow: It ends with a shotgun in his mouth

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