Oprah: In 1986 you began the negotiations that led to your release. Did you really believe you would be freed?
Nelson: We always knew that one day we would be released—we just did not know when. The prison would send a warden to say to us, "Give me your names, the places you came from, and exactly where you'd go if you were released." Sometimes the wardens would tell us, "You chaps cannot be kept, because the whole world is insisting that you be released."
There were times when the government seemed to have crushed the antiapartheid movement completely—and our spirits were down. But the dominating idea was that one day we'd get out.
When Mr. de Klerk called me [on February 10, 1990], he said, "I've decided to release you—tomorrow." I said, "You have taken me by surprise. Give me at least a week to inform our people outside so they can prepare." I also told de Klerk that once I reached the gate of the jail, he would have no control over me. I wanted to be released from the Victor Verster prison, which is where I had been held since 1988, so that I could talk with the people in that area who had looked after me. But de Klerk had intended to fly me to Pretoria, South Africa, and release me there. I refused. I had been jailed because I wanted to think for myself, so I would not let them think for me even then. They released me from Victor Verster the next day—they had already told the press of my release, and reporters had come from all over the world.
Oprah: So after 27 years of prison you said, "I will be released on my terms."
Nelson: Yes. And my fellow prisoners and I knew that the international community was supporting us.
Oprah: Is it true that when you were freed at age 71, it was like being born again?
Nelson: Yes. When I was inside the prison, I told the wardens to come to the gate with their families because I wanted to thank them. I honestly thought they would be the only people who would be at the gate! I had no idea that I would meet a huge crowd.
Oprah: You once told me that humility is one of the greatest qualities a leader can have. Did you come out of prison a more humble man?
Nelson: If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That's a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important—and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them.
Oprah: Maya Angelou says that humility is knowing your place in the world. It's understanding that you are not the first person who has ever done anything important.
Nelson: That is a truism.
We Hear You!