South Africa takes a bow for freedom

In Bloemfontein, Robert Block finds that what was once thought impossible has become ordinary

"In the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight." The old song was pumped over the speakers yesterday in the Orange Free State Cricket Union Stadium in Bloemfontein. On the stage set up on the pitch, young women - black, brown and white, all shapes and sizes - wore mock leopard skin skirts and bikini tops and jived to the music. The stadium, filled with thousands of people, predominantly black, shouted their approval and danced together.

Such a spectacle just one year and one day ago in lily-white Bloemfontein might have caused riots, or at the very least cries of outrage from conservative Afrikaners incensed not just by the race mixing but by the lasciviousness of it all.

But yesterday, as South Africa celebrated Freedom Day, the once unimaginable became the ordinary. The village was peaceful and the lions were sleeping in Bloemfontein and across most of South Africa as the country wrapped itself in a carnival mood and indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation on the first anniversary of its historic elections.

In the capital, Pretoria, adults and children danced and sang to a line- up of top South African musicians and a staid police band thrilled the crowd by breaking into lively township jive and jazz. "Take a bow, South Africa" read the banner headline across the front page of the Star newspaper in Johannesburg. "By highlighting reconciliation and nation-building over the last year, the President [Nelson] Mandela and his multi-party cabinet had confounded critics, who once predicted a cataclysm as 350 years of white domination came to an end," the article underneath it said.

The theme of celebration and congratulation was echoed by Nelson Mandela in Pretoria when he addressed the country.

"On this day, you, the people, took your destiny into your own hands," he told some 10,000 people gathered on the lawns of the Union Building, the country's administrative centre. "You decided that nothing would prevent you from exercising your hard-won right to elect a government of your choice," he said. "Your patience, your discipline, your single-minded purposefulness has become a legend throughout the world."

To mark the day, he announced a pardon for prisoners convicted of arms and explosives crimes committed in connection with apartheid rule before December 1993.

All other prisoners, apart from those convicted of child abuse, would have their sentences cut by a quarter, up to a maximum of six months. The move, like most of his actions during this past year of his government, was aimed a reconciliation.

Despite the gesture, there were a few attempts by hard-line elements to spoil the celebrations. There was a small march in Durban by supporters of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which has declared Freedom Day a day of mourning.

The IFP is embroiled in a dispute with Mr Mandela's ruling African National Congress over the rejection of the Zulu-based party's demand for international mediation on the country's constitution.

The IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has accused the ANC of reneging on an agreement struck days before the election which called for international mediation on the status of the Zulu king and the powers and functions of provincial governments.

Adding its voice of gloom, the white far-right Afrikaner People's Front said it regarded 27 April as a day of "sorrow and regrets".

However, there were few signs of such sentiment in Bloemfontein, where antipathy to black rule had once been notorious.

In recent months, the Orange Free State has become known as the province most open to co-operating with the new government.

The only sign that there remained work to be done was the relatively few white faces among the crowd of people partying.

"That is what we are still fighting for; fo

together, and to dance like those girls there," said Victoria Modisang, a 32-year-old black sales clerk, pointing to the stage. "There are white people here and for Bloemfontein that is good. Freedom Day was for all of South Africa. We voted one year ago for everyone."

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