JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Frederik W. de Klerk announced Saturday that 71-year-old Nelson R. Mandela, who personifies nearly a century of black struggle to end white minority rule, will walk free today after more than 27 years in prison, putting South Africa on a dramatic new course toward ending one of the bloodiest racial conflicts in history.
"This will bring us to the end of a long chapter," De Klerk told a news conference. "There can no longer be any doubt about the government's sincerity in seeking to create a just dispensation based on negotiations."
The president's surprise announcement followed a meeting Friday night with Mandela, in which De Klerk said he was convinced that the man jailed for plotting to overthrow the government is "committed to a peaceful solution."
Mandela, convicted in 1964 of sabotage for launching the African National Congress' armed guerrilla war against Pretoria, is one of the world's most celebrated prisoners. His incarceration has been the main impediment to negotiations with the 27 million blacks in South Africa, and his release is the latest in a succession of steps De Klerk has taken to remove restrictions to black political activity and lure black leaders to the table.
De Klerk said that Mandela will be freed at 3 p.m. (5 a.m. PST) today from the Victor Verster prison farm near Paarl. Anti-apartheid leaders said that he will address a rally this evening in Cape Town before returning to his home in Soweto, a township of 2.5 million outside Johannesburg that he last saw in 1962.
The government also released the first photograph of Mandela in 27 years. It showed a smiling, trim Mandela, dressed in a gray suit, standing beside De Klerk in the presidential offices in Cape Town.
Thousands of blacks took to the streets of Soweto and other townships Saturday night as news of the impending release spread, and joyous throngs celebrated Mandela's return with dancing, singing and blaring car horns. Some held aloft Sunday morning newspaper posters that read, simply: "He's Free!"
Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, upon hearing the news, got out of his car in Soweto and leaped into the air, shouting "Hooray!"
"F. W. (de Klerk), you have done well," Tutu said. "Today is not a day to be churlish. It is a time to say, 'Yeah!' It is a time to celebrate.
"Nelson is going to be the focus of all our aspirations," added Tutu, the black clergyman who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid work. "He will unite us."
The announcement drew swift, unreserved praise from government supporters as well as critics around the world. President Bush called it a "significant step" on the road to an end of apartheid. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher congratulated De Klerk for his "wise decision."
The previously banned ANC, which was legalized by De Klerk last week, welcomed the news at its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
"It's a great victory for our people," said James Stuart, a member of the ANC's executive committee. "I can hardly believe it."
"This is a moment we've waited nearly 28 years for," said Popo Molefe, general secretary of the United Democratic Front, a 2-million-member anti-apartheid coalition. "His release is the result of the struggle of our people."
De Klerk's decision went most of the way toward meeting preconditions for negotiations set down by the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups. The president said that he and Mandela discussed the two major remaining conditions--the release of all political prisoners and the lifting of a 3 1/2-year-old state of emergency.
De Klerk said he would lift the state of emergency if there was no upsurge of violence after Mandela's release. He also told Mandela that the matter of activists on trial and serving time for politically motivated violent crimes "should be dealt with in negotiations," but he offered to enter "exploratory discussions" on the issue in the meantime.
"The eyes of the world are presently focused on all South Africans," De Klerk told a news conference attended by some of the more than 2,000 journalists that the government has allowed into the country in recent weeks. "All of us now have an opportunity and the responsibility to prove that we are capable of a peaceful process in creating a new South Africa."
Freeing Mandela was a calculated risk by the government. The swift decision, and the sweeping measures that De Klerk announced last week, caught the ANC and other leading anti-apartheid groups temporarily off balance.
But the government will now come under increasing pressure from blacks, through rallies and marches, to move quickly to remove the remaining legal pillars of apartheid, the system that segregates residential areas, schools and hospitals and inhibits black ownership of land.
In recent days, police have forcibly broken up several peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrations, and Mandela has said that, once free, he will refuse to obey any apartheid laws.