IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Capturing the essence of ‘Mandela’

David Turnley spent a quarter century photographing the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. In his book "Mandela! Struggle and Triumph," Turnley shares some of his most stunning photographs, along with the powerful stories behind them.
/ Source: TODAY

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and filmmaker David Turnley spent a quarter century documenting the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, as well as the challenges of creating a democracy in that country. In his book "Mandela! Struggle and Triumph," Turnley shares some of his most stunning photographs, along with the powerful stories behind them.

Introduction: Mandela’s children
In the course of my work in South Africa, I was arrested more than a dozen times, simply for doing my job. Like so many others who operated in and around the anti-apartheid movement, I worked under the assumption that I was being monitored and came to expect ha­rassment and intimidation. I’ll never forget the night in early 1987, when, figur­ing it might be my newspaper calling at such a late hour, I woke to pick up the phone. “Mr. Turnley?” a man inquired in a hoarse voice thick with the tint of Afrikaans. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be so concerned with Winnie Mandela.” He hung up, and though I knew the tactic, I was still shaken. This was during the height of a strong crackdown on dissidents, activists, and members of the media thought to be sympathetic to the anti-apartheid movement. The week before, an activist had been driven off the road and killed in what had been officially ruled an accident, though it was more than obviously not.

A few weeks later I was arrested as I accompanied a group of white South African women, activists in a protest group known as Black Sash, on a visit to New Brighton Township, outside of Port Elizabeth. This area, the center of what’s known as the Eastern Cape, had been one of the most militant and one where the police responded with the strongest force to counter any challenge to their authority. After some time alone in a jail cell, I was led to a windowless room and greeted by a police interrogator offering me a warm cup of tea. It seemed a transparent attempt to soften me up before he began his probing questions. He asked me who I knew in the township, but I refused to offer up any names. At that point he left the room and a robust young man with blond hair and ice blue eyes, wearing civilian clothes, came into the room. With cold sternness, he made it clear that they weren’t playing games and would summarily take necessary physical action if I didn’t cooperate. I repeated my position and requested a lawyer. After a few uncertain minutes I was led to a telephone and, presented with a phone book, told that I could make one call. I looked through the Yel­low Pages and found the number of the Port Elizabeth Legal Resources Centre, where I reached a man who listened attentively as I rattled off the details of my predicament. Without hesitation he assured me that he would be there within minutes to secure my release.

About a half hour later the cell door opened and I was told I was free to go; the lawyer I phoned had paid my bail. Outside, I was greeted by a handsome black man in a sharp suit who introduced himself as Fikile Bam. Later, over coffee, he told me about himself; he had spent ten years as a political prisoner on Robben Island and, for much of the time, was held in the wing they called “the University,” with Mandela. When I asked him what it had been like, he said it was hard to explain, but the level of intellect and commitment among the political prisoners was so high he had considered it a bright time in his life. In many ways, his spirits had been higher on the inside than on the outside. The political prisoners, all members of the ANC, be­lieved in active debate as a political philosophy, and he recalled with fondness how, each day, they would each take the other side of an issue in a vigorous argument. They were committed to a vision of a secular, multiracial republic and were preparing to create a new constitution, with democratic architecture, for a new South Africa.

The next day Bam got my arrest removed from the record. Indeed, a new day was not far off — though my time in South Africa would soon be cut short. Despite the protests of my newspaper and the American Embassy in Pretoria, on November 30, 1987, the South African government revoked my press credentials and expelled me from the country.

After I was forced to leave South Africa, Paris became my home and my base for covering the world as a photojournalist. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the student movement in China, strong winds of rebellion and reform were sweeping through the world. It was a hopeful time.

Then, one January afternoon in 1990, I got a surprise phone call from a high-ranking diplomat at the South African Embassy in Paris, asking me to lunch. I agreed to the meeting — albeit with the caution and skepticism I’d been conditioned to exercise in my interactions with apartheid officials. As I sat with the affable Afrikaner at the fancy restaurant of his choosing, he revealed his motive for contacting me: “Things are about to change in my country, and we need people with credibility like yours to go back and cover those changes.” I was suspicious at first — I’d come to regard my expulsion from South Africa as something of a compliment — but as he continued, my heart rate began to increase. Naturally, I told him that I’d love to go, but on two firm conditions: first, that I be able to travel and record what I saw without any restrictions or interference; second, that he let me buy lunch.

He was more reluctant to agree to my second stipulation than my first, and soon after we parted, I was en route to South Africa, visa in hand. When news broke the following week that Nelson Mandela was going to be released from Victor Verster Prison after more than ten thousand days in captivity, I was on a flight to Cape Town within the hour. Mandela had become universal symbol of freedom for South Africans and millions of others around the world.

At dawn on Sunday, February 11, after driving through the glorious vineyards of Cape Town, I arrived at the prison gates to find many photographers already on the scene. A group of us went to greet the police standing guard. We really knew it now: The rules of the game were about to change. These police, from whom many of us had come to expect hostility and harassment, showed a new deference to our requests. We politely established that we would create a photographers’ pen in front of the prison gates and that we would maintain proper decorum. They politely agreed.

By 7:00 A.M., in the blazing heat of the South African summer, there were dozens of photographers standing side by side, each of us the tenant of a very small piece of land — from which we would not and could not move for the next nine hours. The release was scheduled to occur at 3:00 P.M., but the planes sent to collect Winnie Mandela and Walter Sisulu — Nelson Mandela’s cell mate of nearly twenty-seven years, freed four months earlier — were delayed. With the deafening sound of helicopters circling above the prison adding to the intensity, thousands of people gathered to get a glimpse of their hero. Finally, at nearly 4:00 P.M., through the long photographic lenses that we kept focused like lasers on the prison gates, we saw a group emerging from deep inside the prison grounds. The crowd began to roar with euphoria and celebration, and as the prison gates opened we spotted at the center of the entourage, holding hands with his wife and right fist raised in the air, a smiling Nelson Mandela. In a shutter-flash, the “invisible” leader returned to steer into a new era.

I was able to shoot about three frames before the crowd broke in front of our photographic pen and Nelson Mandela sped away in a motorcade, headed to the center of Cape Town to join a grand parade in his honor. More than half a million South Africans of all hues and affiliations were waiting to see the man they affectionately called “Madiba.”

I reached Cape Town City Hall ahead of Mandela’s motorcade and found a mighty sea of people pressing forward to see him. When he arrived, the crowd surged and began to shake his car from side to side. It was beyond loud, and I so seriously feared that I might be crushed to death that I pulled myself onto a man’s shoulders. From there I managed to get across the crowd, grabbing onto the building’s balcony to pull myself to safety. Once there, however, I felt a new sense of desperation as I realized that I was totally out of position to see Mandela emerge from his car. I sprinted into City Hall and down the first corridor I came upon, hoping to find a window from which I could photograph the scene. I opened the first door I came to and looked inside. Staring back at me was the archbishop Desmond Tutu. Behind him were Walter Sisulu and his wife Albertina, the reverends Jessie Jackson and Allan Boesak, the mayor of Cape Town, and several others. In my sweat-soaked panic I had serendipitously stumbled upon Mandela’s reception committee.

Tutu, with whom I’d developed a personal friendship while working on a story for Life, motioned me in, and I took a place quietly in the corner. The room stirred with the collective anticipation of Mandela’s arrival. Suddenly the phone rang. Though the cacophony from the crowd still blared, the room went silent. We heard the archbishop say, “Papa, you have to come and show yourself to your people at least for a few minutes, or I’m afraid they will tear down the city tonight.” And then, “OK, we will wait for you.” He put down the phone and informed us that Mandela, thunderstruck by the intensity of the crowd after so many years of isolation, had asked to be driven away.

Time passed, and then the door opened and in walked a youthful, formidably built (at six-three) seventy-one-year-old man — with a radiant smile. Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his wife and daughters, had been driven to the rear entrance of City Hall, where the crowd was thinner. Everyone in the room came forth to greet him, and in each case he was totally in command, with a laugh and words that made each person feel important. After several minutes, in the midst of the ebullient chatter in the room, Archbishop Tutu began striking a glass with a spoon in a call for silence. He looked straight into Mandela’s eyes. “I just need to tell you what your life has meant to me,” he began, launching into a heartfelt soliloquy that brought everyone to tears.

As Tutu finished, Mandela, with gracious thanks and begging the room’s pardon, excused himself. “I think I have to go and talk to my people now.” He walked toward the window, opened it, and climbed out onto the balcony to address South Africa and the world for the first time in twenty-seven years.

Excerpted from "Mandela! Struggle and Triumph." Copyright (c) 2007 David Turnley. Reprinted with permission from Abrams.