Suddenly what had seemed impossible looked inevitable. To see Nelson Mandela walk free was to foresee the end of white supremacy in South Africa. Not many events in the world have such symbolic emotional power.
Americans who know nothing about South African politics were gripped by the vision of this man who had outlasted his jailers, who had survived 27 years in prison.
But that survival was also a political symbol of extraordinary power. Nelson Mandela's presence testified that his cause - non-racial democracy in South Africa - could not be crushed.
No one who listened to his speech from the City Hall balcony in Cape Town could miss the air of authority. It was what the members of the Commonwealth Mission sensed when they visited Mandela in prison four years ago: "His commanding presence." Nor could anyone watching on television have missed the significance of black South Africans' reaction to Mandela's freedom.
The people dancing in the streets of Soweto, the audience in Cape Town interrupting his speech with cries of "Viva," wanted and expected their own freedom.
In short, what we saw was an intense expression of the reality that the white government has tried to suppress in South Africa all these years. That is that blacks, 75 percent of the population, want to have their part in running the country.
The force of those feelings was unmistakable.
Not that Nelson Mandela speaks for all black South Africans; his African National Congress is the oldest and largest but by no means the only anti-apartheid group. But the symbolism of his triumph had universal appeal to blacks.
President F. W. de Klerk surely understood all that when he decided to release Mandela, understood that enormous emotions and expectations would be aroused. And so he must be credited with a political calculation of rare courage.
I think de Klerk recognized that it was no longer possible to deny the black majority a part in shaping the country's destiny. He released Mandela and unbanned the ANC, his formidable adversaries, in the hope that they and his National Party could negotiate a new South Africa.
That is why those television pictures of Mandela seemed to me to be the harbingers of real political change. De Klerk has essentially made his move toward a new, inclusive politics. He is ready for a non-racial system.
To say such things is to pause in disbelief.
Can it really be true that the National Party, which has held exclusive power since 1948 and embodied white supremacy in a code longer than Hammurabi's, is ready to give that up? Is a government that until Monday described the ANC as terrorists ready to negotiate with it and others?
The answer is that South Africa now is a world turned upside down.
Half a dozen impossible things happen every day.
The South African Broadcasting Corp., controlled by the government, has always slavishly repeated its slanders on anti-apartheid movements and leaders. But when SABC cameras focused on the gate of Victor Verster prison on Sunday, its announcer said: "There is Mr. Nelson Mandela, a free man taking his first steps into a new South Africa."
Of course, there are still huge difficulties, among them the resistance of right-wing whites to any accommodation.
Yet the reaction of whites generally, judged at least from a distance, has been surprisingly friendly to Nelson Mandela. On the road into Cape Town on Sunday groups of whites held up signs reading "Welcome Home." Mandela said most whites and blacks have concluded that "Apartheid has no future."
The hope now brings with it feelings of sadness at the years wasted, and the lives. Nothing can make up for Steve Biko and the others killed in prison.
But it is better to think about the possibilities ahead. What a difference a new South Africa could make, to itself and its continent.
New York Times News Service