South Africans on Thursday celebrated the 20th anniversary of former president Nelson Mandela’s release from prison by sharing their memories of his triumphant walk to freedom after 27 years behind bars for resisting apartheid.

Veterans of South Africa’s struggle to end racist rule, of which Mr. Mandela became the emblem during his imprisonment, converged on Groot Drakenstein prison near Cape Town from early morning to commemorate the historic event, which laid the ground for the country’s peaceful transition to democracy in 1994.

Groot Drakenstein jail, formerly known as Victor Verster prison, was where Mr. Mandela spent the last year of his imprisonment for sabotage.

A number of Mr. Mandela’s fellow Rivonia trialists — as the eight men, including Mr. Mandela, who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 were known — his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela joined scores of ANC leaders for a breakfast at the prison.

Later in the morning, Madikizela-Mandela, who was by his side as he took his first steps to freedom on February 11, 1990, was due to lead a crowd in a commemorative 500-metre walk through the prison gates.

Mr. Mandela, who is 91 and frail, will not be participating in the walk but will attend the opening of parliament later on Thursday in Cape Town, where President Jacob Zuma will deliver the annual State of the Nation speech.

Mr. Zuma was scheduled to first address a mini-rally at the prison, which houses medium - and maximum -security prisoners as well as juvenile offenders.

The inmates would not be joining in the celebrations but would be allowed to watch the proceedings on television, a spokesman for the provincial department of correctional services told DPA.

South African and international broadcasters devoted their morning shows to memories of Mr. Mandela’s release, with politicians, journalists, activists and wellwishers recalling their excitement at seeing the man whose image had been banned from publication by the apartheid regime for three decades.

“I expected to see someone who looked like a boxer!,” former telecommunications minister Jay Naidoo said. Instead, he saw a slender, silver-haired statesman.

Speaking to Johannesburg-based The Star newspaper, Madikizela-Mandela spoke of a bitter-sweet moment, when the nation gained a father but the Mandela family lost a spouse and a father to politics.

“Tragically, history marked the end of our lives as a family,” she said, sentiments echoed by her daughters Zenani and Zindzi to the paper in its Thursday edition.

Mr. Mandela, who became the country’s first black president after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, began marking the anniversary last week with a dinner at his home in Johannesburg for a group of ANC veterans.

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