South Africans on Thursday celebrated the steps that sounded apartheid's death knell 20 years ago: Nelson Mandela walking to freedom after 27 years in prison.

Thousands gathered for commemorations near Cape Town at what was known in 1990 as Victor Verster, the last prison where Mandela was held. The crowds milled around a 10-foot high bronze statue erected at the prison in 2008 depicting Mandela's first steps as a free man. Exactly 20 years ago, Mandela emerged from Victor Verster on foot, hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie, fist raised, smiling but resolute.

"We knew that his freedom meant that our freedom had also arrived," Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader in Mandela's African National Congress who headed a welcome committee for Mandela in 1990, told the crowd at the prison Thursday.

Earlier, Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders had approached the gates of the prison to reenact Mandela's 1990 walk. Arms linked, they stepped through shouting: "Viva Mandela!"

Just four years after Mandela's release, South Africans held their first all-race elections, making Mandela their first black president. Mandela stepped down after one five-year term, helping to entrench democracy in South Africa in contrast to elsewhere on the continent where politicians hung on to power through fraud and violence.

LIVESHOTS: Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, 20 Years Ago

Mandela also is beloved for championing racial reconciliation, ensuring a peaceful transition that spared South Africa the chaos and destruction of anti-colonial wars elsewhere in Africa.

Since 1994, his ANC party has reduced the number of people living in poverty, built houses and delivered water, electricity and schools to blacks who had been without under apartheid. But needs remain great, and impatience has grown along with a gap between the poor and the rich — among them new black entrepreneurs.

Mvuso Mbali, 37, was in the crowd Thursday and said he was at the prison 20 years ago.

"And I still remember vividly what happened," he said. "Today we are reinventing our freedom, and uniting our people to follow the values of Mandela."

Others at the prison on Thursday said Mandela's release — triumphant as it was — carried uncertainty, too.

"When Mandela was released we did not know what was going happen," said Nontuntuzelo Faku, who came to Thursday's event.

Being at the prison 20 years later, she said, "makes me realize how far the country has come."

Mandela's release was the culmination of an eventful few days for South Africa. On Feb. 2, then-President F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other organizations. On Feb. 10, de Klerk announced at a press conference that Mandela would be released the next day.

Whites conditioned to see Mandela as an enemy who would destroy their way of life were shocked and confused. Blacks were uncertain that Mandela, known affectionately by his clan name, Madiba, was right to trust de Klerk. Civil war seemed possible.

"I think the imprint of February is deeply etched into the psyche of our nation," Mac Maharaj, a key ANC leader at the time, told The Associated Press. "That image of Madiba, Winnie, walking out of Victor Verster, holding hands. Madiba looking quite, quite somber, not celebratory, not pumping the air and jumping about like a victorious boxer, but walking very sternly, and I think I see a sense of bewilderment in him."

Mandela marked the anniversary of his release at home last week, reminiscing with fellow veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle for the camera's of his daughter Zindzi's production company, which was preparing a documentary called "Conversations About That Day".

He also was expected to be in parliament later Thursday for a State of the Nation address by President Jacob Zuma scheduled to coincide with the anniversary as a tribute.

Mandela, who will be 92 in July, has largely retired from public life.