Nelson Mandela, the enduring symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle and the inspiration of a nation, claimed victory Monday night in South Africa's first free elections and urged both blacks and whites in this divided land to "loudly proclaim from the rooftops--free at last!"
In an emotional speech before an ecstatic crowd, the silver-haired leader of the African National Congress called the success of his political and racial revolution "a joyous night for the human spirit" and urged his still-stunned country to "celebrate the birth of democracy."
"I am your servant," Mandela told a hotel ballroom packed with cheering supporters, many of whom were hunted and imprisoned as terrorists, saboteurs and enemies of the state by the racist white rulers in Pretoria less than five years ago. "I stand before you humbled by your courage, with a heart full of love for all of you."
Mandela, 75, was hoarse from a cold, and his face appeared puffy. He said his doctor had ordered him to rest for two days and use his voice sparingly. "I hope you will not disclose to him that I did not obey his instructions," he joked.
But he finished his speech with a beaming grin and returned a few moments later to perform an impromptu dance on the stage as a majestic choir sang his praises and the crowd ululated and swayed to the irresistible African rhythm. Balloons in the ANC colors--black, yellow and green--cascaded from the ceiling.
Off to the side, even the hotel kitchen workers, the black men and women in blue uniforms who had prepared a lavish buffet and served a champagne toast, suddenly emerged from a side door and danced with glee.
And soon the township streets of Soweto and Alexandra, where millions of poor blacks have finally won the vote and their liberation, were filled with celebrating crowds.
Although only about half the ballots have been counted, Mandela's ANC has taken a commanding lead after last week's unexpectedly peaceful elections. Mandela is to be elected president by the new National Assembly on Friday in Cape Town and formally inaugurated as the nation's first black president next Tuesday morning in Pretoria.
The current president, Frederik W. de Klerk, will officially step down then, and the formal transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority will be complete. De Klerk will work as one of two vice presidents under Mandela, a fitting symbol of the titanic shift of authority here after 3 1/2 centuries of white rule.
De Klerk conceded defeat early Monday evening in a gracious speech that offered "congratulations, good wishes and prayers" for his rival. "I hold out my hand to Mr. Mandela in friendship and cooperation," he told several hundred supporters, many of them weeping, at his party offices in Pretoria.
De Klerk pledged to continue the policies of reconciliation that led him to release Mandela from 27 years in prison in February, 1990, to help dismantle the institutions of apartheid and to begin the negotiations that led to universal suffrage and last week's historic elections.
"During the last four years, we have proved that we can work together," De Klerk said of Mandela. "Despite our differences, our relationship has become a symbol of the ability of South Africans from widely different backgrounds to cooperate in the national interest. This spirit will be essential to the success of the government of national unity."
De Klerk, who shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, tried to reassure the whites who still make up the bulk of his once-all-white party's support. "Just as we could not rule South Africa without the support of the ANC and its supporters, no government will be able to rule South Africa without the support of the people and the institutions that I represent," he said.
But he added that the country finally has a government that represents its 40 million people. "After so many centuries, all South Africans are now free," he said.
With about 46% of the estimated 22.7 million votes counted since Saturday morning, the ANC had 63.5% of the tally to 23.2% for De Klerk's National Party. Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party was a distant third with 5.9%, followed by the white-supremacist Freedom Front at 2.8%. Other parties divided the remainder of the vote.
The ANC appeared likely to win eight of the nine new provinces, in some areas capturing more than 80% of the vote. After an especially bitter local race, the National Party held a strong lead over the ANC in the Western Cape region around Cape Town. The province has a majority of mixed-race Colored voters, and the National Party successfully played on their fears of black rule.
The ANC trailed Inkatha in KwaZulu and surrounding Natal province in early returns, but votes from ANC strongholds in urban townships around Durban had yet to come in. ANC officials predicted they would win the volatile province, still ruled under a state of emergency, although with a much closer margin than they had hoped.
Overall, it was still possible the ANC would reach its stated goal of winning two-thirds of the vote. It had hoped to gain a clear constitutional majority in the 400-member National Assembly to write a permanent post-apartheid constitution without compromising with other parties.
"We may not have done as well as we hoped, but that is how democracy functions," said Mandela, who was introduced as "Comrade President," a jarring holdover from the ANC's Marxist past. "There should be no tensions in any regions in which we have not emerged as the majority party."
Mandela sought to reach out to his opponents, promising to work closely with De Klerk and other political leaders. Over the last four years, he said, he and De Klerk have "worked together, quarreled, addressed sensitive problems and at the end of our heated exchanges were able to shake hands and to drink coffee."
Although he mentioned the names of leaders of several smaller parties, he pointedly omitted any reference to Buthelezi. The temperamental Zulu chief joined the elections on April 19 only after months of threats to boycott it and spiraling political violence involving rival members of Inkatha and the ANC.
Mandela indicated he may offer a seat in his 27-member Cabinet to the radical black Pan-Africanist Congress, which thus far has won less than 2% of the vote. Under the power-sharing formula, a party must win at least 5% to join the government. But Mandela seemed willing to make an exception.
"They have suffered together with us," he said. "I was in jail with many of them. We suffered together in the battlefield, and it has hurt me a great deal that they should not be able to make the threshold which other parties have made."
But Mandela also warned the other political parties that he is committed to his campaign's ambitious five-year platform to build houses, create jobs and boost education, health and social programs. "If there are attempts on the part of anybody to undermine that program, there will be serious tensions in the government of national unity," he said.
Mandela reserved his greatest praise for the millions of voters who stood for hours in lines last week, enduring endless administrative foul-ups, to cast their ballots in a national rite of passage so cathartic--or at least so distracting--that crime and political violence ceased for several days.
"This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country," he said. "I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy in the ordinary, humble people of this country."
As the crowd cheered, he added, "Now is the time to heal the old wounds and to build a new South Africa."
Party standings as of Monday for the National Assembly in South Africa's all-race elections, with 46% of the total vote counted.
Votes % ANC 6,540,175 63.5 National Party 2,391,365 23.2 Inkatha Freedom Party 608,692 5.9 Freedom Front 292,673 2.8 Democratic Party 188,535 1.9 Pan-Africanist Congress 136,263 1.3
Source: Independent Electoral Commission