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Mandela can still conjure up the old Madiba magic

Icon given rapturous ovation on twentieth anniversary of his release from prison

At the age of 91, Nelson Mandela still ignites "Madiba Magic" merely by turning up and taking a few hesitant steps as he is helped to a fold-down chair.

White-haired and frail, the man who emerged from 27 years in captivity to declare himself "not a prophet but a humble servant" sat with his wife Graça Machel in the public gallery of the packed national assembly yesterday, in a rare public appearance on the anniversary of his release from Victor Verster prison. On his other side sat Winnie, his ex-wife, who had accompanied him as he walked to freedom from Victor Verster prison 20 years ago.

There was no appearance on the streets yesterday: the former president avoided the crowds by using a basement entrance to the national parliament building in Cape Town. But as he was helped to his seat in the public gallery, he smiled and waved in acknowledgement as parliamentarians and guests gave him a standing ovation and sang: "Nelson Mandela, there is none like you". Politely leafing through a print-out of President Jacob Zuma's hour- long state of the nation address, Mandela had the eyes of the assembly on him. And as Zuma spoke nervously and, characteristically, fumbled with his pages, nothing could sway parliament's attention away from Mandela.

"As we celebrate Mandela's release, let us recommit ourselves to a better future," said President Zuma, as if reading from an African National Congress handbook. "Let us pursue the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all live together in harmony and with equal opportunity."

The troubled Zuma had carefully chosen to open parliament on the 20th anniversary of Mandela's release. His strategy had been to link his government's performance to Mandela's legacy and perhaps silence the tittle-tattle over his private life. His fifth marriage last month, and the subsequent revelation that he has a four-month-old child with the daughter of one of his friends, have led to derision from many and prompted high-ranking scepticism over whether he will ever be capable of leading from the front.

The strategy didn't work. Perhaps for the first time, the freedom icon's legendary moral authority was not enough to raise the tone of the day. Instead, it highlighted the moral bankruptcy of President Zuma.

Yesterday, everything said by the veterans of the ANC – those who served time during apartheid – seemed in some way a veiled criticism of the current president, brought to power by a left wing now demanding payback.

Former finance minister Trevor Manuel, now a minister in the presidency struggling to keep South Africa on a free-market course, stood at the gates of Victor Verster prison and eulogised over Mandela's sense of self-sacrifice.

"After he walked out of these gates he did not go home," Manuel told the crowd of thousands. "He went to be with his people. He said, 'I have not come as your saviour but as your servant. I am a disciplined and loyal member of the ANC and the ANC will give me direction'." Mac Maharaj, who transcribed Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom and smuggled it out of their Robben Island prison, said: "Mandela's life was about accepting the consequences and taking responsibility, and moving ahead. Do we have the leadership now? It depends on whether we rise up to those challenges."

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Cosatu trade union federation, tried to support Mr Zuma, saying South Africa should not be judged on one person's mistakes. But he added: "Nelson Mandela represented not only unity, love. He also represented good values."

Ahmed Kathrada, who went through the six-year Rivonia trial with Mandela and later served time on Robben Island with him, admitted to being "worried" about the present state of South Africa. But when asked about President Zuma's rating, he just said: "I would not have the temerity to talk about anyone else's morals."

Even for the party's controversial youth leader, Julius Malema, the legacy of Mandela is not embodied by the Zuma administration. "In Nelson Mandela we celebrate a generation that was driven by radicalism. Nelson Mandela represents a generation that changed the ANC from being a moderate voice to being a fighting force. Mandela was not a typist, he was in the forefront as a volunteer in chief."

Mandela no longer speaks in public. But as he smiled and waved in Cape Town yesterday, his influence could be felt as keenly as ever.