It was a day I thought I would never see. Having spent my youth as a sporadically active anti-apartheidist (I was deported from South Africa in the mid 1970s) not in my wildest dreams did I think I would witness Mandela walking free.
I did, and thus proved that predicting the ebb and flow of African politics was a mug's game.
In the four years between that famous day and Mandela's swearing in as South Africa's first democratically elected president I was equally certain a peaceful outcome was impossible. The smell of cordite hung in the air, Zulus were threatening to engage in civil war with Xhosas, and white Afrikaner hard-liners were threatening to blow the seemingly endless constitutional talks to smithereens.
And out of this combustible landscape, on a continent that specialises downward spirals, came peace, prosperity, equality and Mandela's Rainbow Nation. I was wrong again.
Now, 20 years on from that historic day, I cannot help but feel that dark clouds are gathering over South Africa. Mandela's success at instilling patriotism in a previously divided people (see the Clint Eastwood film Invictus) and of transforming the ruling African National Congress from a liberation movement with umbilical ties to communism to a democratic political party have in recent years been all but undone during the rule of Thabo Mbeki, his strange, remote successor. Mbeki's refusal to deal appropriately with the country's AIDS pandemic, his clandestine support for Zimbabwe's despotic Mugabe in the face of international condemnation, and his inability to address the growth of institutional corruption has left the country in a precarious state. To expect a moral turnaround from his successor Jacob Zuma, a wild populist with a history of dubious fiscal and sexual encounters, is probably asking too much.
Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, the country's crime rate keeps soaring and it is now second only to Colombia in terms of murders per capita, and there are signs that the democratic institutions that were the framework of the new South Africa are being challenged. Most worrying, given that the Rainbow Nation was conceived with the most progressive and admired constitution in the world, have been threats to the judiciary, most recently an ANC attack on deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke when he professed loyalty to the South African people rather than to the ANC.
Many of the socio-economic problems facing the country have been deferred by the construction boom – and the hoped-for tourist boom – tied to this year's football World Cup. That South Africa is the only African nation capable of holding such a major international sporting event is an achievement in itself, however if it is to avoid becoming as dysfunctional, corrupt and broken as the rest of Africa in the years following the tournament it will have to return to the values that Mandela so brilliantly articulated 20 years ago.
I'm not too optimistic, but then I have been consistently wrong up to now.