JOHANNESBURG — South African lawmakers sang Nelson Mandela's praises Thursday as the anti-apartheid icon settled into parliament's public gallery for a State of the Nation address scheduled in tribute to his 20 years of freedom.
Mandela was released in 1990 after spending 27 years in prison and went on to lead South Africa through the last stretch of a stunning, peaceful revolution from apartheid to democracy.
His release was remembered as triumphant Thursday, but the moment was uncertain and anxious for South Africa, and it is a testimony to Mandela's statesmanship that things went so well.
"When Mandela was released we did not know what was going happen," said Nontuntuzelo Faku, who joined thousands of people who marked Thursday's anniversary near Cape Town at what was known in 1990 as Victor Verster, the last prison where Mandela was held.
Being at the prison 20 years later, Faku said, "makes me realize how far the country has come."
In 2008, a 3-meter (10-feet) high bronze statue was erected at the prison 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.
The release of Mandela, known affectionately by his clan name, Madiba, was the culmination of an eventful few days for South Africa. On Feb. 2, then-President F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other organizations. On Feb. 10, de Klerk announced at a press conference that Mandela would be released the next day.
Whites conditioned to see Mandela as a a shadowy enemy – most did not know what he looked like because images of him had been banned – were shocked and confused. Blacks were uncertain that Mandela, who had begun negotiations with the white government from the isolation of prison, was right to trust de Klerk. Civil war seemed possible.
"I think the imprint of February is deeply etched into the psyche of our nation," Mac Maharaj, a key ANC leader at the time, told The Associated Press. "That image of Madiba, Winnie, walking out of Victor Verster, holding hands. Madiba looking quite, quite somber, not celebratory, not pumping the air and jumping about like a victorious boxer, but walking very sternly, and I think I see a sense of bewilderment in him."
In a chapter of his autobiography titled simply "Freedom," Mandela said he was surprised so many people had come to greet him outside the prison. He described his joy, but also his realization that much work remained ahead.
"It was vital for me to show my people and the government that I was unbroken and unbowed, and that the struggle was not over for me but beginning anew in a different form," he wrote.
Today, aides say Mandela is frail but in good health for a man who will be 92 in July. He has largely retired from public life, but appeared to revel in the attention at parliament Thursday evening. He moved stiffly before taking a chair and smiling broadly as members of parliament sang a song honoring him. President Jacob Zuma scheduled his address to coincide with the anniversary as a tribute.
Zuma devoted his speech, which Mandela could be seen reading as he spoke, largely to an economy hit hard by the global downturn. But the president took time to praise Mandela and call on South Africans to recommit themselves to Mandela's ideals: "Building a better future for all South Africans, black and white."
Zuma emulated Mandela by reaching out to white conservatives during the speech with praise for the late President P.W. Botha for initiating discussions about the release of political prisoners. Botha, who died in 2006, was president from 1978 until 1989 and was seen by many as the last hard-line apartheid leader. When white rule ended, Botha refused to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the atrocities of apartheid and offered the possibility of amnesty to those willing to confess to their crimes and demonstrate remorse.
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.
Mandela also is beloved for championing racial reconciliation, ensuring a peaceful transition that spared South Africa a race war. His promotion of South Africa's rugby team during the 1995 World Cup endeared him to many whites and symbolized his efforts to build bridges and forgive the past, as depicted in the film "Invictus."
Since 1994, his ANC party has reduced the number of people living in poverty, built houses and delivered water, electricity and schools to blacks who had been without under apartheid. But needs remain great, and impatience has grown along with a gap between the poor and the rich – among them new black entrepreneurs.
South Africa marked Thursday's anniversary with speeches, photo exhibits tracing Mandela's life, radio and TV specials and newspaper supplements.
Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement captured imaginations around the world, as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recalled in an essay in London's Independent newspaper Thursday. Brown, who has often spoken of his admiration for Mandela, said the anti-apartheid struggle "was the defining political question of our time."
Brown said Mandela has "a generosity of spirit that lifts the world."
Mandela marked the anniversary of his release at home last week, reminiscing with fellow veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle for the camera's of his daughter Zindzi's production company, which was preparing a documentary called "Conversations About That Day".
Associated Press Writer Thandisizwe Mgudlwa in Drakenstein, South Africa, contributed to this report.