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Thousands Mark Anniversary of Nelson Mandela's Release

Jonathan Clayton in Paarl, Western Cape

A bronze statue depicting former South African president Nelson Mandela as he walked to freedom in 1990 following his release after 27 years of incarceration. Prominent South Africans have gathered at a prison outside Cape Town to fete the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from jail, which hastened the demise of apartheid. (AFP/Gianluigi Guercia)

Thousands of South Africans were today marking the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's walk to freedom after 27 years as the world's most famous political prisoner.

Dozens of the top leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and liberation struggle stalwarts marched out of the gates of Victor Verster prison, since renamed the Drakenstein Correctional Centre, this morning in an emotional re-enactment of Mr Mandela's now-iconic march, widely seen as signalling the end of apartheid.

Now a frail 91-year-old, Mr Mandela himself did not attend the celebrations, although a huge bronze statue of him marching from jail, fist pumping the air, formed a fitting backdrop for the ANC figures to address the faithful.

Mr Mandela will however participate at the official opening later today.

Many among the crowd of several thousand ANC supporters were disappointed, however, at the non-appearance of the two most senior figures expected - President Jacob Zuma and Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who had not still arrived by midday.

The ANC, which has stage-managed nationwide events of commemoration, said Mr Zuma - who is at the centre of a political firestorm sparked by his polygamy and fathering of children out of wedlock - will address a rally on a nearby rugby field later in the day.

The dignitaries arrived from 7am and first enjoyed tea and breakfast in a massive marquee on the prison grounds, before threading their way en masse back out of the gates as Mr Mandela and the ex-wife "Winnie" had done on February 11, 1990.

Trevor Manuel, now head of the special Presidential Planning Unit, and Cyril Ramaphosa, then a fiery young ANC activist, spoke outside the gates of their roles as part of Mr Mandela's "reception committee".

"It was all a bit chaotic and I must tell you we were unprepared," said Mr Ramaphosa, now one of the wealthiest of a new breed of black entrepreneurs, but then the leader the powerful miners' union.

"De Klerk (former president) did not free Mandela, you did. De Klerk did not end apartheid, you the people -the ANC - did," he said to roars of approval and chants of "Viva Mandela" and "Amandlha" (power) - the battle cries of the "struggle" years.

Veteran anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, released four months before "Madiba", the clan name by which he is affectionately referred to by South Africans, told journalists he knew would be freed soon after him.

"It was an emotional moment. When we were released, that was exhilaration, happiness but at the same time sadness that we are released, we came to prison together, and we are leaving him behind," the 80-year-old said.

"But we knew that once we released that the day is not too far when he is going to join us."

Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu exhorted South Africans to use the day to remember the long road the country had travelled since. He told The Times the scorecard was mixed, but the country had taken enormous steps forward.

"I would have to say, like a headmaster, ‘not bad, not bad at all, but must and can do much much better'," he said in a recent interview.

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

Mr 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".

Mr 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.

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 per cent 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 also among the highest in the world.

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