'Free at last,' declares victorious Mandela

May 03, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Proclaiming his people "free at last," Nelson Mandela claimed victory in South Africa's first non-racial election last night, a few hours after President F. W. de Klerk conceded defeat.

The classic speeches that signaled the formal end of every political campaign arrived with fewer than half the estimated 20 million votes counted and with the final percentages still far from determined. But the contestants had grown weary of waiting for the inevitable verdict of the slow-arriving vote tally.

Without exit polls, which were outlawed, it was impossible for the statistical experts to make accurate projections.

But the country had been waiting to hear these two speeches, not just for the three days since the polls closed, but for over four years, since Mr. de Klerk freed Mr. Mandela and set in motion the process that ended his presidency and the apartheid rule he had undone.

"This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country," the 75-year-old Mr.Mandela said to a ballroom full of supporters at a downtown Johannesburg hotel. "I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy. . . . You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own and joy that you can loudly proclaim from the rooftops, 'Free at last!' "

His declaration of victory -- on the third night of a party that had been awaiting that claim -- set off a joyous musical celebration among the top echelon of his African National Congress at the ballroom.

"Now is the time for celebration, for South Africans to join together to celebrate the birth of democracy," he said.

And that is exactly what his supporters did as thousands took to the streets in black townships across the country. It was the climactic moment for the transition from apartheid to democratic rule, a process that began when Mr. Mandela left prison four years ago.

At the hotel, Mr. Mandela danced onstage as the crowd joined a choir in singing "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica," or "God Bless Africa," the Xhosa hymn that is now South Africa's co-national anthem.

Mr. De Klerk, speaking to about 300 people at the National Party headquarters in Pretoria 2 1/2 hours earlier, proclaimed himself satisfied with what had transpired since his Feb. 2, 1990, speech announcing the release of Mr. Mandela, the legalization of the ANC and the end of apartheid -- changed the face of South Africa forever.

"After so many centuries, we will finally have a government which represents all South Africans," he said. "After so many centuries, all South Africans are now free.

"I said four years ago that Nelson Mandela would play an important role and then noted that he had declared himself willing to make a constructive contribution to the political process in South Africa.

"During the last four years, Mr. Mandela has played such a role. His role was a leading and an honorable one. I thank him and I congratulate him. He deserves the congratulations, prayers and good wishes of all South Africans.

"During the past four years, we have proved that we can work together despite our differences."

Describing Mr. Mandela as "a man of destiny," Mr. De Klerk said: "I hold out my hand to Mr. Mandela in friendship and in cooperation."

He added: "Just as we could not rule South Africa effectively without the support of the ANC and its supporters, no government will be able to rule South Africa effectively without the support of the people and the institutions that I, as the leader of the National Party, represent.

"I enthusiastically pledge that support in the interest of working for national reconciliation and reconstruction."

Mr. de Klerk ended his speech with "God bless South Africa" and then added "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica."

Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk will continue to work together. The country's interim constitution -- which will be in place for the next five years while the new Parliament writes the final one -- calls for zTC vice presidents from parties that get over 20 percent of the vote.

That means there will be one from the ANC and another from the National Party. It is a job Mr. de Klerk is expected to get.

As the returns continued to come in last night, the ANC's percentage of the vote moved above the 60 percent mark. The National Party was a distant second at under 25 percent. But it did not appear that the ANC would get the two-thirds majority needed to write a new constitution without support from other parties.

Thus, the ANC will need to get the support of the National Party in order to pass a new constitution.

But those tasks lie ahead. For now, the current job belongs to the Independent Electoral Commission, which must get the votes counted and the results certified in time for the new Parliament to gather in Cape Town on Friday. The only order of business is expected to be the election of Mr. Mandela, who will then be inaugurated on May 10 in Pretoria.

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