JOHANNESBURG – JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Built on the edge of Soweto, Soccer City stadium will be the grand stage for Sunday's World Cup final. For many South Africans, though, the site has been hallowed ground for two decades — not because of sports, but as a historic venue in the anti-apartheid struggle.
In October 1989, with apartheid still in force, Soccer City's precursor stadium hosted an electrifying rally at which more than 70,000 blacks greeted newly freed leaders of the still-outlawed African National Congress. The group included most of the ANC's long-imprisoned hierarchy except Nelson Mandela.
It was the largest anti-government rally in South African history — but the record was short-lived.
Less than four months later, an even bigger, more euphoric crowd overflowed FNB Stadium to welcome home Mandela himself, the paramount ANC leader, at last freed unconditionally by the white-minority government after 27 years in prison. Some young men scaled the light towers high above the stadium to see their hero.
Together, the rallies — witnessed by scores of foreign journalists and diplomats — were graphic proof of the ANC's massive popular support, sending an unmistakable message that its leaders would play central roles as South Africa moved forward on a bumpy path away from apartheid.
"The rallies were very important symbolic statements," said Murphy Morobe, a leading activist who helped organize the events. "It was so important for people to hear our leaders not compromising, even after spending so much time in prison."
The first rally was remarkable because almost every aspect — including repeated praise for the ANC's guerrilla campaign — violated the stringent security laws of nation in a declared state of emergency. Police kept their distance, and the closest thing to a security unit in the stadium was an honor guard of young ANC supporters in khaki uniforms.
"Today, the ANC has captured center stage in South Africa," said 77-year-old Walter Sisulu, the ANC's former general secretary who'd been freed two weeks earlier, along with six colleagues.
The government had given permission for the rally, although a magistrate warned that speakers should avoid promoting ANC aims. The warning went unheeded.
The second rally, on Feb. 13, drew an even bigger crowd — well over 100,000 — to greet Mandela, two days after his release from prison in Cape Town and 11 days after the ANC was unbanned. Youths perched precariously on walls, others scaled the 120-foot light towers, and a few dozen people were injured as crowds jostled to glimpse the podium.
"We are going forward," Mandela, then 71, told the roaring throng. "The march toward freedom and justice is irreversible."
At the rally's end, two helicopters took Mandela and his entourage to a smaller stadium in nearby Soweto, a black township where riots against apartheid had gained worldwide attention in 1976. From there he rode in a motorcade — escorted by Soweto police with ANC flags on their motorcycles — to the modest, four-room house he lived in before his arrest.
Morobe, now CEO of an investment company, was chief spokesman for the largest anti-apartheid coalition in that era and at one point was detained more than 14 months before escaping to take refuge in the U.S. consulate. He became a key member of the "reception committee" that prepared for the ANC leaders' release from prison and organized the welcome-home rallies.
Challenges were numerous, Morobe recalled in an interview — including finding the right venue and minimizing crowd-control problems. FNB Stadium was chosen because it was the biggest venue, and because its management included black soccer officials sympathetic to the ANC's goals.
At no point, Morobe said, was there any liaison with the police.
"We refused to be involved in anything that could be viewed as a compromise," he said. "We just organized and went ahead. Because of the high profile of these leaders, our feeling was they would hold back."
The police did stay away, but Morobe said the huge crowd at the first rally made him nervous.
"The anxiety levels were so high — you start feeling your tummy just going crazy," he said.
Different worries arose at the second rally.
"With Mandela, it was more the realization that we have in our hands the most important figure in our struggle," Morobe said. "We knew we had the responsibility of taking care of him."
Mandela returned to FNB Stadium three years later for another momentous political occasion — the April 1993 funeral for Chris Hani, head of the South African Communist Party and a top ANC official who'd been assassinated by a white gunman.
Again, the stadium was filled to overflowing — and this time there was violence nearby: clashes between police and enraged black youths that claimed more than two dozen lives in the region's townships.
Inside the stadium, Mandela conveyed urgency.
"Speed is of the essence," he said. "We want an end to white minority rule now. We want an election date now. We want to know when we will have a government of our choice."
Barely a year later, on April 27, 1994, he was elected president.
Mandela's release from prison seemed near-impossible when ground was broken for the original stadium in 1986. The project was the brainchild of soccer officials and got financial backing from First National Bank, which secured the naming rights.
Amid anti-apartheid unrest and the state of emergency, the goal of building South Africa's first world-class soccer stadium seemed audacious, but it opened in 1989 — only weeks before the Sisulu rally.
It was constructed in a virtual no man's land near mine dumps on Johannesburg's southwestern outskirts.
Now the site is officially part of Johannesburg, and the city owns the stadium, which was overhauled and expanded for the World Cup.
Its future is somewhat murky — there's even a dispute brewing about whether its post-World Cup name will be National Stadium or revert to FNB Stadium.
Its management promises all-out efforts to prevent it from becoming a white elephant. In addition to major soccer matches, rugby, concerts and corporate events are expected.
First National Bank is well aware that the stadium named after it is now enshrined in the anti-apartheid legacy.
"It was great to see the stadium used for those historic events," said FNB marketing official Vicki Trehaeven. "It's very much a South African landmark."