30 Years Later: Watch Nelson Mandela’s 1990 Release from Prison

Nelson Mandela at a press conference the day after his prison release in February 1990.
Nelson Mandela at a press conference the day after his prison release in February 1990. / Susan Winters Cook/Getty Images

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after having served more than 20 years of a life sentence.

Mandela had joined the African National Congress (ANC) as a young lawyer in 1944 to advocate for an end to South African apartheid, an oppressive system of government built on racial segregation. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, he was arrested several times throughout the 1950s and 1960s on charges like violating the Suppression of Communism Act, leaving the country illegally, and committing high treason.

In 1963, while he was already in prison for earlier crimes, Mandela and other members of the ANC were charged with about 200 alleged acts of sabotage in what came to be known as the Rivonia Trial, named after the Johannesburg suburb where some defendants had been arrested. The following June, Mandela and most of his cohorts were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The nation experienced a wave of change when F.W. de Klerk became president in 1989 and worked to terminate apartheid, suspending executions and reinstating previously banned political organizations like the ANC.

On February 10, 1990, de Klerk announced Mandela would be freed from prison the very next day. Upon his release, Mandela, surrounded by a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in Cape Town, delivered a rousing speech in which he thanked those who helped dismantle apartheid and expressed the need for a democratic government.

As History.com reports, Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1993 and become president of South Africa in 1994—find out more about his life and legacy here.