JOHANNESBURG Three Zimbabwean exiles chained themselves to a statue of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday, saying they wanted "freedom" for their homeland on the eve of elections there.
"We are here to remind the world that Zimbabwe is not yet free," said Butholezwe Nyathi, one of the trio who wrapped a thick silver chain around their necks at the base of the 2.7 meter (9 foot) high bronze statue in Johannesburg's Mandela Square.
A group of supporters, bemused tourists and passers-by watched the brief protest, which ended when security guards at the square in the shopping complex asked them to leave.
Nyathi said Mandela, who stepped down in 1999 after serving one term as Africa's first black president following the end of apartheid five years earlier, represented freedom for Africans. Mandela, 95, is critically ill in a Pretoria hospital.
The protesters contrasted South Africa under Mandela with Zimbabwe, where 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe is seeking to extend his 33 years in power as Africa's oldest leader in an election on Wednesday clouded by opposition allegations of intimidation and vote rigging.
"Why can't Zimbabweans get this change that happened in South Africa?" asked Lina Ngwenya, a South African supporting the protesting Zimbabwean exiles.
Many fear that a close contest between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change could reignite the kind of political violence that marred a 2008 vote and led to the formation of an uneasy unity government in Harare.
Several million Zimbabweans have fled political turmoil and economic crisis in their country over the last 15 years, and many of them are living in South Africa.
"We are afraid that if the will of the people is subverted tomorrow, we will be stuck here forever," said Nyathi, who said he had lived in South Africa for nine years after fleeing as a refugee from his homeland where he had worked as a nurse.
(Reporting by Siyabonga Sishi and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Alistair Lyon)