Standing at the gates of a prison, South Africans celebrated how far they have come since Nelson Mandela took his walk to freedom 20 years ago Thursday.
Now 91 and frail, Mandela is rarely seen in public but aides say he may mark the occasion by attending a state of the nation address Thursday evening in parliament by President Jacob Zuma.
Thousands of admirers flocked to the former Victor Verster Prison in Drakenstein near Cape Town where Mandela was last held and where a 10-foot (3-meter) high bronze statue depicting Mandela's first steps as a free man after 27 years behind bars now stands. On this day 20 years ago, Mandela walked out of Victor Verster hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie, fist raised, smiling but resolute.
It was a watershed moment for a nation that had suffered the horrors of apartheid and marked a death knell for white rule, which collapsed in 1994 with South Africa's first all-race elections.
Stalwarts of Mandela's African National Congress linked their arms together on Thursday and re-enacted Mandela's 1990 walk through the prison gates, shouting: "Viva Mandela!"
Cyril Ramaphosa, who as an ANC leader 20 years ago headed a welcome committee for Mandela, recalled the moment as he addressed the crowd on Thursday.
"We knew that his freedom meant that our freedom had also arrived," said Ramaphosa, who is now a businessman.
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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, divorced from Mandela in 1996, had been expected to join the re-enactment but did not, telling the BBC she would have found it too painful.
Zuma scheduled his state of the nation address to coincide with the anniversary as a tribute. Mandela himself celebrated quietly at his home last week by reminiscing with fellow veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Just four years after Mandela's release, South Africans elected the former anti-apartheid fighter as their first black president. Mandela stepped down after one five-year term, helping to entrench democracy in South Africa in contrast to elsewhere on the continent where politicians often hung on to power through fraud and violence.
Mandela also is beloved for championing racial reconciliation, ensuring a peaceful transition that spared South Africa a race war. His promotion of South Africa's rugby team during the 1995 World Cup endeared him to many whites and symbolized his efforts to build bridges and forgive the past, as depicted in the film "Invictus."
Since 1994, the ANC has reduced the number of people living in poverty, built houses and delivered water, electricity and schools to blacks who had been deprived under apartheid. But needs remain great. Impatience has grown along with a gap between the poor and the rich, whose ranks include black entrepreneurs.
Mvuso Mbali, 37, was in the crowd Thursday and said he was at the prison 20 years ago.
"And I still remember vividly what happened," he said. "Today we are reinventing our freedom, and uniting our people to follow the values of Mandela."
Others said Mandela's release — triumphant as it was — carried uncertainty, too.
"When Mandela was released we did not know what was going happen," said Nontuntuzelo Faku. Being at the prison 20 years later, she said, "makes me realize how far the country has come."
The release culminated an eventful few days for South Africa. On Feb. 2, 1990, then-President F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other organizations. On Feb. 10, de Klerk announced that Mandela, known by his clan name as Madiba, would be released the next day. No one knew then what would happen to the nation afterward.
"I think the imprint of February is deeply etched into the psyche of our nation," Mac Maharaj, a key ANC leader at the time, told The Associated Press. "That image of Madiba, Winnie, walking out of Victor Verster, holding hands. Madiba looking quite, quite somber, not celebratory, not pumping the air and jumping about like a victorious boxer, but walking very sternly. And I think I see a sense of bewilderment in him."
South Africa also marked the anniversary with speeches, photo exhibits, radio and TV specials and newspaper supplements.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Mandela said the anti-apartheid struggle "was the defining political question of our time." In an essay in London's Independent newspaper , Brown said Mandela has "a generosity of spirit that lifts the world."
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