Cheri-Ann James

Cheri-Ann James

To the average person the Mercedes-Benz given to former president Nelson Mandela 18 years ago might seem to be just another car, but for those who built it it is a symbol of liberation.

When it was announced in 1990 that Mandela would be released from prison, members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa at the Mercedes-Benz South Africa plant in East London met to discuss what they could give him.

They decided to build a car - one that had to be top of the range. They decided on a red Mercedes-Benz 500 SE. It would be built in their own time and without pay.

The car maker supplied the material, equipment and facilities.

Mongezi Siyo, who helped assemble the floor of the car, says: "We felt we needed to give Madiba a car after he had spent so many years in prison fighting for the liberation of South Africa. Over that time there was no way he would have had the money to buy himself a car."

For touch-up painter Zolani Qukulu, being part of the process was a life-changing experience.

"Painting Madiba's car gave me that sense of humanity that was missing as a result of apartheid," Qukulu says. "I felt like I had a place in society, a situation that had not existed before."

The men fondly recall the excitement felt by all the workers.

Richard Jezile, who worked in the paint shop, says they used to talk about Mandela when he was still imprisoned and they sang freedom songs in his honour.

Qukulu says they took a conscious decision about everything, even the colour.

"The colour of the paint to me represented the blood of the workers that had been spilt by the fascism of apartheid," he says.

When the car was completed workers stood around anxiously waiting for inspector Morris Tukuta to pass judgment on their workmanship.

"The car was faultless," Tukuta says. "It had no defects. Everyone built that car with great passion."

The car was presented to Mandela at a packed Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdantsane on July 22 1990.

Siyo says what made the handing-over ceremony special for him was seeing the expression on Mandela's face.

"Nelson Mandela was very happy." - Daily Dispatch