PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — PRETORIA, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa yesterday, culminating one of the most remarkable journeys in the history of modern nations. For Mr. Mandela, the journey began in a rural village of the Transkei, went through the turbulence of black township politics, persevered during imprisonment and, finally, reached triumph at the ballot box. And in his triumph, the 75-year-old president pleaded for reconciliation among a people torn by decades of hatred and rivalry. "The time for the healing of the wounds has come," he said. "The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. "Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another," he vowed, drawing the loudest applause. "Let freedom reign. God bless Africa!" The gala day was full of symbolism and irony. Mr. Mandela took the oath of his new office during a 45-minute ceremony in an amphitheater at the Union Buildings, the impressive administrative capital built of sandstone in 1912 to mark the unity of the previously warring white-run states that joined to make up the Union of South Africa. That building was not pockmarked by the shells of revolution, the toll that history usually exacts in transformations as stunning as South Africa's. Instead, it was handed over intact to Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), its offices vacated by the National Party for the first time since it assumed power in 1948 and instituted apartheid, a brutal form of racial discrimination. Shortly after taking the oath, administered by the country's chie justice, Michael Corbett, Mr. Mandela stood side by side with outgoing President F. W. de Klerk, the leader of the party that put Mr. Mandela in jail for 27 years and the man who freed him. Unlike most losers in revolutions, Mr. de Klerk is not headed for imprisonment or exile, but is a deputy in the new government. Speaking to a crowd of about 50,000 that gathered on the huge lawn below the formal ceremony, Mr. Mandela praised Mr. de Klerk. "[He] has engraved a niche for himself in South African history because he has turned out to be one of the greatest reformers, one of the greatest sons of our soil," Mr. Mandela said, promising that they would now work together to govern the country. Earlier, Mr. Mandela gave a brief address before the 5,000 dignitaries seated in the amphitheater. There were Vice President Al Gore and Cuban President Fidel Castro. There were PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prince Philip, husband of England's Queen Elizabeth II; first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Emphasizing his theme of reconciliation, Mr. Mandela even invited three of the men who guarded him during his 27 years of imprisonment. "Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too, too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud," Mr. Mandela said. "We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." Visible behind him as he spoke was the brooding granite block of the Voortrekker monument that sits on a hilltop south of the city. In friezes depicting wars with African tribes, it commemorates the Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch, German and French white settlers, who chafed under British rule in the Cape Town area. In the early 19th century, they trekked inland to these high arid plains, where they set up their independent republics. Pretoria, one-time capital of the Transvaal Republic, was named after Andries Pretorius, hero of the Battle of Blood River, a crucial defeat of the Zulus by the voortrekkers. It was Afrikaners who saw the freedom to oppress blacks as an essential part of their independence. The National Party became their political wing. For South Africa's first black president to take the oath in this city was laden with historical significance. But the day's most potent symbolism came through the soft songs and the loud roar of military aircraft that he now commands along with the rest of the military establishment once bent on destroying him and his cause. Only a few months ago, the country's old national anthem, "Die Stem," Afrikaans for "The Source," was considered so politically incorrect that it was rarely sung anywhere except at defiant right-wing rallies. Since it was declared the co-anthem of the new South Africa, along with the hymn-like "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" (God Bless Africa), it is now heard once again at public gatherings. Yesterday, the country's new black leaders sang out the Afrikaans stanzas they learned in school, then listened to whites struggle with the unfamiliar Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho verses of the anthem in a step toward the union of long-divided cultures. The most spectacular moments of the ceremony came when South Africa's air force conducted a flyover. The aircraft came with the boom of a 21-gun salute in the background, led by helicopters and then by six groups of nine airplanes in tight diamond formations. The finale was a line of jets streaming out the colors of the country's new flag -- green, black, gold, white, red and blue. The planes were flown not by members of the conquering revolutionary army, but by pilots who until moments before had pledged their loyalty to the government led by Mr. de Klerk. The air force last flew in combat in 1986, when it bombed suspected ANC bases in neighboring countries. With hundreds of prominent foreign guests in a country with a demonstrated potential for violence, the festivities were a security and logistical challenge. No great security incidents were reported. The enthusiastic crowd that turned out for the afternoon's entertainment, which featured nearly every big name in South Africa, was much smaller than the expected 150,000. Some of that was undoubtedly due to the warnings about traffic and security as many clearly opted to stay home and watch on TV. But there also was a sense that the country was finally getting celebrated out. First there was the elation of the election two weeks ago, then the ANC's declaration of victory a few days later, then Friday's final vote count, then Monday's first meeting of Parliament that elected Mr. Mandela, all providing an excuse for a party. In some ways the inauguration was the least successful of the many celebrations of this transition. The people gathered in the Union Buildings amphitheater were well-heeled and well-dressed, a far cry from the township thousands whose enthusiasm usually accompanies Mr. Mandela's public appearances. Even when Mr. Mandela went down to address the masses on the lawn, security precautions forced him to speak from inside a box of thick bulletproof glass. And he had to depart quickly to attend a luncheon with 5,000 of the VIPs. The biggest crowd Mr. Mandela saw yesterday was at a Johannesburg stadium, where more than 60,000 gathered, first to watch the inauguration on a big screen, then to see South Africa play Zambia in soccer. His appearance must have been inspirational. In the first two minutes of the second half, South Africa scored twice and went on to upset Zambia, 2-1.