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South Africans mark Mandela's release from prison
Thousands of South Africans on Thursday marked 20 years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after 27 years as a political prisoner.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela walk hand-in hand upon his release from Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on February 11 1990.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela walk hand-in hand upon his release from Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, on February 11 1990.

Chanting "Viva, Nelson Mandela, Viva," thousands of South Africans marked 20 years on Thursday since the anti-apartheid icon walked to freedom after 27 years as a political prisoner.

Now a frail 91-year-old, Mandela did not attend the celebrations at the Drakenstein Prison near Cape Town, although a huge bronze statue of him marching from jail, fist pumping the air, towered over the crowd much as Mandela's image towers over South African politics and society to this day.

Among the predominantly black crowd of well-wishers waving the black, green and gold flags of Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) were fellow "struggle" heroes present on that momentous Sunday two decades ago. "It was all a bit chaotic and I must tell you we were unprepared," said millionaire businessman Cyril Ramaphosa -- then a senior mining union and ANC official -- recalling the chaotic scenes that followed Mandela's release.

Unbanned only nine days previously, ANC leaders were given just 24 hours' notice to prepare for the release of Mandela, who four years later would become the first black president of a country dominated by a white minority for 300 years.

Ramaphosa and his associates had to fly to Cape Town in specially chartered aircraft, while security outside the prison in the heart of South Africa's winelands was organised by a Catholic priest who knew "nothing about guns".

Mandela's release

Relive the historic moment of Nelson Mandela's release, as he took his first steps as a free man in a new South Africa following 27 years in prison.

Watch the slideshow

Rank-and-file ANC members were asked to don suits and look tough to provide a vague semblance of security, but minutes after images of a free Mandela were beamed around the world, he was swamped in the melee.

"We lost him along the way," Ramaphosa said with a grin.

Only after a tip-off from a traffic policeman did frantic ANC leaders find Mandela, where he was drinking tea with his shoes and socks off at the suburban home of an ANC supporter.

Organisers then escorted him to a podium to deliver his first public words in nearly three decades in front of tens of thousands of people on Cape Town's Grand Parade.

"We finally hoisted him up and he made his speech," Ramaphosa said.

Euphoria gives way to reality
Mandela's push for reconciliation during his 1994 to 1999 presidency is credited with unifying the racially divided nation and laying the foundations of the democracy that oversees the continent's biggest economy.

"He means a lot to the country, from his release, even still today," said conservationist Elizabeth Davids (42).

"He freed us all from apartheid. Before we never mixed with each other, coloureds, whites and blacks were separate but now we all mix together and are like one nation."

However, since the euphoria of 1990 and multiparty elections four years later, the reality of dismantling four decades of official -- and many more of unofficial -- apartheid has hit home.

Despite 17 years of economic growth before 2009, unemployment has remained above 20% and millions of black people continue to live in shantytowns with little access to running water, electricity or healthcare.

South Africa's HIV/Aids rate is among the highest in the world.

In power since 1994, the ANC has made some headway in reducing levels of inequality among the highest in the world, and this year's hosting of the Soccer World Cup is a symbol of the "new" South Africa's growing self-confidence.

But with every passing year, its "liberation struggle" credentials wear thinner as poor black voters -- more and more of whom do not remember apartheid -- demand clean streets and clean politicians.

"I will say thanks to Mandela," said 25-year-old student electrician Richard Ndogeni. "The politicians of today are just eating the money. They are not doing their jobs. They only care about cars and houses, not the people."

'Legacy of FW de Klerk'
Meanwhile, racism, unemployment and the housing shortage were all the legacy of former state president FW de Klerk, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema said on Thursday at the celebrations.

It was De Klerk, as head of state, who took the decision in 1990 to free Mandela after 27 years behind bars.

But Malema said the former National Party leader, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, was neither a hero nor an icon.

"De Klerk never released Mandela ... De Klerk must never be celebrated.

"De Klerk is a product of apartheid. De Klerk sponsored black-on-black violence. De Klerk sponsored the IFP to kill our people in KwaZulu-Natal."

He said De Klerk had never loved the people of South Africa.

"Racism is the legacy of De Klerk. Unemployment is the legacy of De Klerk. Shortage of houses is the legacy of De Klerk. De Klerk must never be compared with Mandela." -- Reuters, Sapa