Mbeki pledges to fight poverty as South Africa celebrates 10 years of freedom from apartheid

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The Independent Online

Exuding optimism, Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, began his final term of office yesterday as his "rainbow nation" welcomed Freedom Day amid pomp and fanfare.

Mr Mbeki accepted his second term with a pledge to fight the widespread poverty afflicting his nation and a promise "never to betray those who died and suffered in the long struggle to end apartheid".

"Today we begin our second decade of democracy. We are convinced that what has been achieved during the first demonstrates that as Africans we can and will solve our problems," said Mr Mbeki after taking the oath of office in several languages.

"Having served as a prime example of human despair, Africa is certain to emerge as a place of human hope," he said.

Thousands of dignitaries from across the world, including John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, joined the South Africans as they marked 10 years of liberty.

The weather obliged as the dignitaries witnessed the historic occasion in the bright autumn African sunshine.

Unlike the inauguration as president of the anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela in 1994, which was marked by conflicting emotions, the mood among the jubilant crowds yesterday was festive.

Sikosana Sizwe, 39, a bricklayer, said: "In 1994, many people shed tears on these grounds. Many would not believe that white brutality against the black majority had indeed ended. It was a miracle."

He added: "Today, we have every reason to celebrate what has happened since the 1994 miracle. Not only have we shamed those who thought the country would collapse under black rule, Mbeki has proved he can rule the whole world."

As the dignitaries arrived, walking up the steps to the amphitheatre, there was enormous applause for those recognised by the crowd.

Among those applauded were Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, a crucial figure as South Africa tries to win the right to host the 2010 football World Cup.

In what is now something of a South African tradition - or perhaps South Africa's version of blowing a raspberry to the rest of the world - there was a standing ovation for Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President, and his wife, Grace.

Why black South Africans continue saluting Mr Mugabe when his policies have destroyed a once promising nation remains a mystery.

One European dignitary at the ceremony said: "It could be that they don't understand the real victims of his repression are his own black people.

"Because of the legacy of white rule, the blacks here perhaps seem to see Mugabe as exerting the most revenge on whites."

F W de Klerk, the former president who freed Mr Mandela from prison and began the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid, was also warmly applauded.

But, as always, Mr Mandela himself remained the star of the show.

His arrival was greeted with a display of adulation. Thousands clapped rhythmically as the "father of the nation" arrived. Others broke spontaneously into the song, "Viva Nelson Mandela, Viva Nelson Mandela".

For details of the UK celebrations for 10 years of freedom in South Africa, go to www.sa2004.org