Dancing, weeping and cheering, tens of thousands of South Africans turned out today to inaugurate the nation's second democratically elected president while bidding farewell to the first -- Nelson Mandela, the towering icon who ended one of the most extraordinary public lives of the 20th century with a wave of the hand and a few humble words.
Seconds after Mandela's deputy, Thabo Mbeki, took the oath of office, the two men locked hands above their heads as more than 50,000 spectators and another 4,000 invited guests erupted in applause. From the stage of the ornate Union Buildings, seat of South Africa's government, the 80-year-old Mandela then surrendered his presidential chair, ushering the 56-year-old Mbeki to its seat.
The exchange represented the first transfer of authority in South Africa's fledgling democracy, born five years ago when voters of all races swept Mandela's African National Congress to power, ending nearly five decades of white-minority rule and making the longtime political prisoner the country's first black president. Now Mbeki, who was a student in England when Mandela entered prison in 1962 and had become one of the ANC's most visible leaders in exile by the time of Mandela's release, assumes power with an even larger parliamentary majority but without the adulation and affection accorded his predecessor.
"Madiba is South Africa's light, and of course we hate to see him go," said Patricia Mtsweni, referring to Mandela by his widely used clan name. "They put him in jail for 27 years, and he forgave his jailers. They freed him, and he freed us, not just from the evil of apartheid, but from hatred.
"People have looked down on Africa and Africans as less than human for so long, and here comes this noble, proud black man who puts a human face on Africa," said Mtsweni, one of thousands who watched the inauguration on mammoth video screens on the hillside below the Union Buildings. "How can we be savages when we can produce such a man as Madiba?"
Mbeki, too, paid tribute in his inaugural address to Mandela and others of "a generation that pulled our country out of the abyss and placed it on the pedestal of hope, on which it rests today. We owe to them much of what is humane, noble and beautiful in the thoughts and actions of our people."
The week leading up to today's inauguration has been one continuous tribute to Mandela by South Africans of all races and political persuasions. The white judge who sentenced him to prison for treason described him as a "saintly man." A conservative newspaper wrote that his leadership would be missed, and the head of a rival political party compared him to Mahatma Gandhi.
"He is a transcendent political and cultural figure," said Eddie Webster, a sociology professor. "You cannot really place him in a contemporary context; the only comparisons are historical."
A month short of his 81st birthday, Mandela leaves South Africa with a seemingly solid democracy but the still-formidable challenge of solving problems rooted in decades of abuse and neglect inflicted by apartheid, the legal system of racial separation that underpinned white-minority rule. Mbeki, an economist, inherits the continent's strongest economy, but a stagnant one. Unemployment among poor, uneducated blacks is more than 40 percent. The crime rate is soaring. Despite construction of more than 600,000 new homes since 1994, there is still an acute shortage of decent housing. Health officials estimate that nearly a quarter of South Africa's 40 million residents are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Mbeki has acknowledged that his administration will have to ensure that more of the black majority begins to reap the benefits of the new South Africa -- at a more rapid pace than has been the case so far. "The full meaning of liberation will not be realized," he said today, "until our people are freed both from oppression and from the dehumanizing legacy of deprivation we inherited from our past."
Still, largely due to the leadership of Mandela and his generation of black activists, South Africa today is fundamentally different than it was five years ago. Since the ANC rewrote the constitution in 1996, the nation once described as the "foul stench in the nose of the world" boasts what is widely considered one of the most liberal charters in the world. Nearly nine of 10 adults voted two weeks ago.
Mandela, who remarried last year, has said that in retirement he plans to write his memoirs and spend time with his 20 grandchildren at his home in the rural Transkei region and at the one in Mozambique with his wife, Graca Machel, widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel.
Mbeki's inauguration followed by two days his selection as president by South Africa's Parliament. Mbeki, who served as deputy president in Mandela's cabinet, has handled day-to-day government operations for several years, and as ANC leader his election was assured.
Today's ceremony attracted leaders from around Africa and the world, including Attorney General Janet Reno, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Hidden from view, however, were the ghosts of apartheid; statues of the men who imposed whites-only rule were covered with green sacks.
The inauguration coincided with the 23rd anniversary of the Soweto uprising, in which nine black children were gunned down by white police officers during a peaceful protest, sparking a final phase of the fight against apartheid that led to its collapse. Mandela placed a wreath today at the Hector Peterson Memorial there. Rising from his crouch, he said simply: "I have reached the end of my political career, and now I hand it over to a younger man."
"No one deserves retirement like Madiba," said Ntuba Jafta, another hillside spectator at the inauguration. "But he means more to this country than gold. He is the symbol of all that is possible."
CAPTION: Outgoing president Nelson Mandela acknowledges the crowd as newly inaugurated Thabo Mbeki looks on.
CAPTION: Mbeki pays tribute to "a generation that pulled our country out of the abyss and placed it on the pedestal of hope."