South Africa marks 20 years since Mandela walked to freedom

Thu Feb 11, 2010 2:34pm EST
 
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By Wendell Roelf

GROOT DRAKENSTEIN, South Africa (Reuters) - 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 organized by a Catholic priest who knew "nothing about guns."

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.   Continued...

 
<p>A statue of Nelson Mandela stands outside the gates of Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), near Paarl in Western Cape province, February 10, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>