JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The 27-year wait for a glimpse of Nelson R. Mandela grew frenzied Monday as school classrooms emptied in black townships around Johannesburg and about 35,000 people showed up at a soccer stadium in Soweto to welcome home the black nationalist leader.
But the guest of honor didn't show up.
The rally was postponed until today and moved to the 100,000-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto, where Walter Sisulu and others of Mandela's freed African National Congress colleagues were welcomed by 75,000 people in a peaceful rally last year.
Although Mandela has been seen on state-run television each of the two nights since his release, his followers yearn for a look at him in person.
"We've seen him on the TV, but we don't know if he's the real one," said an elderly messenger in Johannesburg who identified himself only as Pani. "Tomorrow, we will know."
Since Mandela's release Sunday, hundreds and often thousands of people have gathered outside the wall that surrounds his small house in the Orlando West section of Soweto, singing and dancing and hoping to witness his homecoming.
Television lights bathe the front lawn and a satellite dish sits nearby. A public address system has been installed in case Mandela feels compelled to say a few words when he reaches his home, which his aides say may be as early as today.
Celebrations in the streets of Soweto and other black townships have been continuous since Mandela, who was serving a life sentence for sabotage, was released from prison near Cape Town. The freed leader's speech to a rally in that city, and his subsequent news conference Monday, fueled the anticipation in Soweto.
Mandela's freedom has raised hopes among the 27 million blacks across the country that their goal of majority rule and an end to apartheid, the system of racial segregation, is in sight. During his more than 27 years in prison, he has become the inspiration to the black liberation struggle.
"It's a celebration," said Zwelakhe Sisulu, a newspaper editor and member of the Mandela reception committee.
"You have a whole generation of activists whose political outlook has been shaped by this man whom they've never met," he said. "Mandela is this influential teacher they've never seen nor heard, but who has influenced every minute of their lives."
Mandela, 71, and his wife, Winnie, arrived in Johannesburg on Monday and spent the night at an undisclosed private home.
In Soweto, vendors were selling grilled sausage and fried chicken near the Mandela home. A group of youngsters did the \o7 toyi-toyi, \f7 the jogging dance that is a trademark of anti-apartheid activists in the townships, around the clock.
Throughout the township, in which 2.5 million blacks live outside Johannesburg, youngsters set up roadblocks, allowing cars through only when their occupants showed the raised fist of the black liberation movement or sounded their horns in support.
"The man is just magic," said Thami Mazwai, senior assistant editor of the Sowetan newspaper. "Kids who don't even know the man are celebrating. All they want is to see him and hear the sound of his voice.
"People who have never expressed a political opinion are all of a sudden dancing in the streets," Mazwai added.
Rally organizers distributed pamphlets throughout Soweto, quoting Mandela's appeal to "all my people to act in a disciplined and calm manner. We have won a massive victory. Let us not delay our struggle by acting in an undisciplined manner."
When organizers of the reception committee finally got word to those already in the soccer stadium near Mandela's home that the rally and his appearance had been postponed until today, most of the thousands left peacefully.
But, according to the British news service Reuters, police said that a crowd of youths from the stadium, frustrated at not being able to greet Mandela, surrounded a prison truck and broke open the locks to free 13 prisoners inside. Pretoria police told reporters the prisoners were being taken to a local jail, facing charges of robbery, rape and housebreaking. They said officers deliberately did not use their guns because the situation was too volatile in the township.
By the time word reached Soweto that Mandela would not be arriving, tens of thousands of children already had given themselves the day off from school to celebrate and, for a third consecutive day, they flooded the streets, raising clenched fists and shouting "Viva comrade Mandela!" An official in charge of black education said the chances of normal attendance the rest of the week "are remote."
"I think this Mandela mania will continue for at least two weeks," one weary parent in Soweto said. "I don't see anything constructive happening in the schools or anywhere else."