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.
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.
Organizers 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.
Mandela’s push for reconciliation during his 1994-1999 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, coloreds, whites and blacks were separate but now we all mix together and are like one nation.”
However, since the euphoria of 1990 and multi-party 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 percent and millions of blacks continue to live in shanty towns with little access to running water, electricity or healthcare.
South Africa’s HIV-AIDS infection 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 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.”
Writing by Ed Cropley, Editing by Marius Bosch and Giles Elgood