Once it witnessed apartheid slaughter. Yesterday Sharpeville saw a spirit of peace

Three decades ago they saw the police roll into Sharpeville and open fire on a peaceful demonstration, murdering 69 black men, women and children and wounding more than 100 others.

The survivors emerged from a massacre which shocked the world and forced the African National Congress to abandon half a century of humble requests and polite persuasion in favour of the AK47. It was fitting then that they shared the platform in Sharpeville yesterday with President Nelson Mandela when he signed South Africa's new constitution, the final chapter in the country's remarkable negotiated peace.

But the thousands who came to dance and sing in the blazing summer sun, under a canopy of umbrellas, were exorcising more than the massacre. They also put to rest the agreement which laid the foundations for it and countless other atrocities. For it was at neighbouring Vereeniging that the Boers, having lost their battle for independence, signed the 1902 peace agreement with the British which disenfranchised the majority black population.

"That treaty laid the foundations of the majority's suffering," Valli Moosa, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, said. But he told the crowd that this was the moment that "South Africans for 300 years have lived and died for". Future generations would cherish the day, he said.

President Mandela linked the constitution directly to the sorrows and losses of the past. "Out of the many Sharpevilles which haunt our history was born the unshakeable determination that respect for human life, liberty and well-being must be enshrined as rights beyond the power of any force to diminish," he said.

There was a minute's silence for those who died in South Africa's long revolution but from the moment the jazz legend Hugh Masekela began a musical plea to the ancestors to celebrate, the sombre mood changed. "Man, this is one happy day," declared a township woman, sashaying near the front. "This is one happy day."

South Africa chose International Human Rights Day to pass into law one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. Approved by the Constitutional Court last week, it was two years in the making.

Since the euphoria of the first democratic elections in 1994 the reality of everyday, down-and-dirty politics has kicked in. The ANC is struggling with internal divisions, born of personal ambitions and petty jealousies.

That was inevitable. But somehow Mr Mandela still floats above the grime. As he danced his inimitable shuffle, he still wove his magic yesterday, a symbol of personal sacrifice and what it can achieve. And the crowd loved him. Some say the old man has lost it; that his judgement is suspect and he is given to the dictatorial rant. But while yesterday's air-force fly-past and the unveiling of the commemorative plaque were too early, Mr Mandela, 78 and a little stiffer these days, was on cue and in sparkling form.

His speech was run-of-the-mill but he charmed his audience. "I need hardly tell you that this is a speech my bosses drew up for me," he said, before going off the cuff to relate a self-deprecatory story about the young and brash Comrade Mandela. Its message was simple; good men and women in every political party had to guard against those who, like the young Mandela, lacked vision and wisdom. He made a general plea for national unity.

For disunity he had only to look to his own top brass. On his right sat Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale and Thabo Mbeki, president-in-waiting, recently involved in a bitter public dispute surrounding corruption allegations. On his left was Cyril Ramaphosa, out-going ANC secretary-general and overseer of the new constitution, who has opted for a business career after losing the battle to succeed the President.

As if internal power struggles were not enough, public expectations are tough to fulfil. "The constitution is important," one man said, even as the constitution was being signed. "But it's minor compared with jobs and houses."

While the gloss may have dulled, the historic significance of the day still reached most people. As Mr Mandela and the ANC's big guns left the platform, a teenage boy brandished a poster of the mass funeral which followed the Sharpeville massacre. It showed scores of coffins in a long, neat line awaiting burial.

The boy thrust his poster forward. "Never again," he mouthed quietly. Then a little louder: "Never again."

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