PRETORIA, South Africa -- South Africa's celebration yesterday of the first anniversary of democratic elections showed that this national holiday -- officially called Freedom Day -- is on its way to being the country's version of the Fourth of July.

As on Independence Day in the United States, people seemed to prefer staying home and relaxing to going out and hearing politicians make speeches. Despite elaborate preparations, the crowds at the festivities organized around the country were small.

The biggest draw was President Nelson Mandela, who addressed a crowd of fewer than 10,000 people gathered in front of the impressive Union Buildings in Pretoria, the site of his inauguration last May.

"The birth of our South African nation has, like any other, passed through a long and often painful process," Mr. Mandela said. "The ultimate goal of a better life has yet to be realized.

"But if any one day marked the crossing of the divide from a past of conflict and division to the possibility of unity and peace, from inequality to equality, from a history of oppression to a future of freedom, it is the 27th of April 1994.

"On this day, you, the people, took your destiny into your own hands."

Mr. Mandela was warmly greeted and attracted rock star-like adulation during a walk along the razor-wire fence that separated the crowd from the stage. But when his speech turned to the specifics of governance, the crowd started to drift in the direction of the stands grilling boerwors, South Africa's version of the hot dog.

In Cape Town, where the reported crowd of 2,000 was only 10 percent of those expected, Deputy President F. W. de Klerk was the main speaker.

Mr. de Klerk said last year's vote had freed South Africans from the burdens of their history -- "from the divisions, the conflict and the bitterness that had been our heritage for more than 300 years. It made it possible for us -- for the first time in our history -- to greet one another as equals and as fellow South Africans. And this has been a great liberation for us all."

A few sour notes were sounded. Various right-wing groups lodged protests, claiming that last year's election meant the loss of Afrikaner independence. In Durban, some 10,000 members of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party marched, declaring this a day of mourning for unfulfilled promises -- thereby keeping alive Inkatha's rivalry with Mr. Mandela's African National Congress.

In a gesture of reconciliation, Mr. Mandela went out his way to praise Ben Ngubane, an Inkatha member of the Cabinet who helped plan the anniversary celebration.

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