First Night of Freedom

First Night of Freedom

56th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre


In 1982 I invited Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was then Secretary-General of the South African Council of Churches, to address an international conference on World Peace and Poverty in Dublin, organised to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi. He accepted my invitation but was unable to attend as his passport had been confiscated by the Apartheid Regime because he had begun to call for international sanctions against South Africa.

Two years later, just three months before he was declared the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, he fulfilled his commitment to me and came to Dublin. It was the beginning of a friendship which has endured for over three decades.

In 1985 I was denied entrance into South Africa and had my non-visa requirement as an Irish citizen withdrawn because of my anti-apartheid activities. I had been invited by Bishop Tutu, then the first ever black bishop of Johannesburg.

Don Mullan, left, with Leah and Desmond Tutu, lead the 1992 Famine Walk

In 1992, Archbishop Desmond and Mrs Leah Tutu accepted my invitation to lead the 5th annual AFrI Great ‘Famine’ Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, which I had conceived and started in 1988.

In 1994, I was the guest of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anglican Primate of Southern Africa, at the historic inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. During that visit he invited me to speak at a symposium on Robben Island, where Madiba had spent the majority of his 27 years incarceration, convened to consider its future use.
I have since returned several times to South Africa, most recently on two occasions in 2013, as the guest of the Tutu family, to create a major photographic exhibition for the France/South Africa Season, publicly displayed at Place du Palais Royal, beside the Louvre Museum, Paris. The second visit was to attend the funeral of President Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s Release

Nelson Mandela walks free, accompanied by his wife, Winnie.

The world held its breath on 11 February 1990 as we awaited our first glimpse of Nelson Mandela following his release. My eldest daughter, Thérèse, will turn 29 on 26 April 2016. One of our most treasured memories is when she was just three-years-old, sitting on my knee, before our television set in Dublin. I wanted her to be a witness to history. It was one of the great and noble days in the history of humanity when Madiba was released from Victor Verster Prison in South Africa.

“Why are you crying Daddy?” my little girl asked.
“I hope you will remember this day, Thérèse”, I replied, “because today the man you see waving and smiling is walking free from prison where he was held by unfair and unjust people for more than 27 years.”

We had yet to comprehend the colossus who filled our screens. Here was a son of Africa, the most abused continent on earth, who elevated the human condition and breathed hope into a tired world – and all because he refused to hate and seek revenge.

Origin of Idea

Nelson Mandela arrives at Bishopscourt, Cape Town, for his first night of freedom, as the guest of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It had escaped me, as it has escaped most people, the fact that Nelson Mandela spent his first night of Freedom at the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Just before returning to Ireland after attending the inauguration of Madiba as the first democratically elected President of the new South Africa on 10 May 1994, I visited the Archbishop at his residence in Bishopscourt, Cape Town. During a tour of the residence he brought both myself and a colleague to a bedroom and informed us that it was here that President Mandela and his wife Winnie had spent his first night after his release from prison. This fact had entirely escaped me.

Over the years the significance of this historical detail has exercised my curiosity and interest. It is the origin of my idea and concept for a stage play, destined for Broadway and the Westend, as well as a book and a major documentary film, simply entitled:


Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the great global icons who bridges the 20th and 21st Century. His fearless commitment to justice and racial equality during the South African apartheid era permanently placed him in physical and moral peril.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu holds aloft the hand of Nelson Mandela in triumph after he was proclaimed State President of South Africa (PHOTO: Dudley Brooks, 10 May 1994)

It is an overlooked but crucial fact of history that it was at the residence of Desmond Tutu Nelson Mandela chose to spend his first night of freedom in Cape Town. It was South Africa’s political leader meeting South Africa’s moral leader who, during the apartheid era (when black political leaders were either in prison, in exile or, like Steve Biko, sent to an early grave) had fearlessly confronted the Apartheid Regime with the doctrine of active non-violence.

While security was a factor, to stay with Tutu was a very deliberate decision by Mandela who was already charting South Africa’s future and the need for a process of truth and reconciliation which he believed Tutu could deliver. It was also Mandela’s recognition and ‘Thank You’ for the seminal role that Desmond Tutu had played in his absence.
Where Mandela spent his first night of freedom, therefore, was both strategic and a statement of intent.

Because of the momentous events that were unfolding around his release, this important moment of South African history has been largely overlooked and the encounter between Mandela and Tutu, its meaning and outcome, has yet to be explored in depth.

Stage Play:
The primary concept is that of creating a four-person drama for stage.
The four characters are: Nelson and Winnie Mandela; and Desmond and Leah Tutu.
The play begins at midnight and ends at dawn, symbolising the transition from darkness to light – from oppression to freedom.
The play offers four major roles for black actors.
The setting is a spacious and comfortable sitting room with a fireplace in the Anglican Archbishop’s residence in Cape Town. The conversation is animated.
The conversation explores the past, present and future hopes for the new South Africa.
All four characters tell many stories of their respective experiences.

Mandela recounts his 17-months on the run, some lucky escapes and the night of August 5th 1962 when the luck of the ‘Black Pimpernel’ ran out at a police roadblock on R103 near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal. He reflects on key historical events, such as Sharpeville, which forced him to change the ANC’s policy of non-violence. He speaks of his frustrations, learning of the unfolding tragedies in his prison cell on Robben Island.

The crowd from which Tutu rescued the alleged police informer

In response to a question from Mandela, Tutu recounts the afternoon at Duduza in July 1985 when, following a funeral, he came upon a crowd about the ‘necklace’ an alleged informer. With a blazing car in the background, the petrol filled tire was already around a young man’s neck, when Tutu risked his own by weighing into the crowd to save the young man’s life.

Leah Tutu recalls her experience at the funeral of Steve Biko in September 1977 and the lies told by the authorities concerning his murder, and questions whether or not Biko was already dead before being placed in a cell in Pretoria after enduring a 1000 kilometre drive on the floor of a South African police Landover, despite a fatal head trauma, inflicted during his torture in East London, that required urgent medical attention.

Winnie Mandela is, at times, belligerent and militant and one senses the anger that she has nursed over three decades of targeted harassment, abuse, house arrest and imprisonment. Truth and Reconciliation is a far cry from the justice she wants exacted on the supporters of apartheid. There is clear tension and disagreement between Nelson and Winnie, evidenced by a heated exchange, over the unexpected tone of reconciliation and forgiveness that Madiba wishes to discuss with Tutu. She doubts if Steve Biko’s family, as an example, will be willing to follow her husband’s direction.

The conversation turns to the present and all that needs to be done, not least organising and campaigning for South Africa’s first democratic elections, the writing of a new constitution, and the transition to an ANC Government.
And then the future, not just Mandela’s request that Tutu act as Chairperson for his proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also for the time when he and Father Tutu, Winnie and Leah will be no more and future generations, who are the first to be born into freedom, must take responsibility for the country and carry forward their hope of a multi-racial, ethnic, religious rainbow nation.

Desmond Tutu hand President Mandela the TRC Reports

As Dawn breaks and the couples prepare to retire, one hears echoes of the inspiration that filled Madiba’s inauguration speech in May 1994 and Tutu’s opening remarks in 1996 as Chairman of the TRC, all aimed at promoting national unity and reconciliation.

The audience has been witness to an intimate and unique glimpse at history and the personal lives and insights of key historic players in the epic struggle to rid South Africa of the tyranny of apartheid. We are uplifted and left hoping, that this miraculous and marvellous moment of hope, is forever honoured, through humane justice and the politics of integrity, as an epitaph to all who suffered and died for the birth of a new Republic of South Africa.

Interviews, Playwright, Documentary and Book:
There is urgency to record interviews with the key witnesses to Nelson Mandela’s first night of freedom. The key witnesses are advancing in age and it is imperative that we record their memories and reflections as soon as possible. These include Desmond and Leah Tutu, Winnie Mandela and Mandela’s third wife, Graça Machel.
In addition to being primary research material for a playwright, the interviews will also form part of a major international television documentary with the working title: ‘The Making of ‘First Night of Freedom’’.
The recorded interviews will also be essential material for a book entitled ‘First Night of Freedom’ which I propose to do.

With Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 85th birthday in October 2016, we have an opportunity to revisit the significance of Nelson Mandela’s First Night of Freedom which he chose to spend with Tutu.

Desmond Tutu has given me permission to develop this idea and has agreed to co-operate.

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