The latest picture in The Independent and The Hulton Getty Picture Collection's photo-history shows South African police firing on the day that Nelson Mandela was released. Mandela's lifelong struggle against racial oppression eventually rewarded him with a Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country, but at the price of spending 27 years in prison. When Mandela reached the hundreds of newspeople and well-wishers, he raised his right fist and looked forward to democracy after three centuries of white rule. His stay with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Bishop's Court on his first night of freedom showed that change was on the way: this plush residence was in a once-white suburb, now multiracial.

Germany was also entering a new era of hope, and not just because West Germany had won the World Cup and reduced England's Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne to tears. At midnight on 3 October, Germany became one nation, only 11 months after the Berlin Wall had come down.

The year also brought independence from the USSR for Lithuania, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan.

The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein announced that all foreign "guests" in Iraq and Kuwait would be detained, as a "human shield" to ensure the good conduct of their native countries, but on 28 August Hussein was forced to appease the international forces lined up against him, and release all women and children taken as hostages.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher resigned after losing a key ballot of her own MPs. The first woman prime minister was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major.

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