S. Africa Marks 20th Year Of Mandela's Release

South Africans on Thursday celebrated the 20th anniversary of former president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

South Africans on Thursday celebrated the 20th anniversary of former president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Thousands gathered for commemorations near Cape Town at what was known in 1990 as Victor Verster, the last prison where Mandela was held during 27 years of incarceration.

South Africans gather to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release from prison of former president Nelson Mandela near Cape Town, South Africa, on Thurs., Feb. 11, 2010.  South Africans gather to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release from prison of former president Nelson Mandela near Cape Town, South Africa, on Thurs., Feb. 11, 2010. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

The crowds milled around a three-metre-high bronze statue erected at the prison in 2008 depicting Mandela's first steps as a free man. Exactly 20 years ago, Mandela emerged from Victor Verster on foot, hand-in-hand with his then wife Winnie, fist raised, smiling but resolute.

In this Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990 photo, Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie, walk hand-in hand-with their raised clenched fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison.

His release marked the beginning of the end of white minority rule and apartheid in South Africa, a system of institutionalized racial discrimination first implemented by the National Party in 1948.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society," Mandela said upon his release. "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

"We knew that his freedom meant that our freedom had also arrived," Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader in Mandela's African National Congress who headed a welcome committee for Mandela in 1990, told the crowd at the prison Thursday.

Earlier, Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders had approached the gates of the prison to re-enact Mandela's 1990 walk. Arms linked, they stepped through shouting: "Viva Mandela!"

1st black president

Just four years after Mandela's release, South Africans held their first all-race elections, making Mandela their first black president. Mandela stepped down after one five-year term, helping to entrench democracy in South Africa in contrast to elsewhere on the continent where politicians hung on to power through fraud and violence.