July 18, 1918 – Dec 5, 2013
Mandela, who devoted his life to fighting South africa’s system of apartheid, became one of the 20th century’s most revered leaders after being released from prison in 1990. He shared the nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, the former South african president who negotiated the white government’s abdication of power, resulting in Mandela’s landslide 1994 election at age 75 in the nation’s first nonracial vote.
Mandela became a mythic figure during his 27 years in prison. When he finally was freed, he was one of the rare heroes who actually lived up to his legend.
“I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.
With equanimity and wit, he disarmed his adversaries. The national Party government released him from prison assuming it would be able to maneuver him into a deal that would effectively perpetuate white rule, but they were undone by Mandela’s perseverance.
a shrewd and skillful politician, Mandela was one of the few black leaders who had the credibility to bridge the gap between radicals and moderates in the african national Congress, the liberation movement that now governs South africa.
His strength as a leader was his ability to tone down militant blacks who wanted to settle scores after three and a quarter centuries of racial oppression and to reassure nervous whites that they had a place in South africa’s future, thus preserving the nation’s dynamic economy.
Genteel, dignified and noble, Mandela also had what one writer called a “puckish streak.” He was full of joie de vivre and would sometimes break out into a spontaneous slow-shoe dance that came to be known as the “Mandela Jive.” He also could be stern and unforgiving to those who did not heed his orders.
affectionately known as “Madiba,” Mandela was beyond reproach and was treated gently by the South african news media.
He did not smoke, he did not eat red meat and he sipped wine publicly only when it was helpful for promoting South africa’s vineyards. He disdained business suits on all but state occasions, opting for colorful print shirts that became his trademark.
He sacrificed his family life to the anti-apartheid struggle. He divorced his first wife because she did not share his passion for politics. He spent the prime of his adult life in jail, losing touch with his children and growing distant from his second wife, Winnie Mandela. The couple were divorced after an embarrassing public trial in 1996.
A prince and a lawyer
Mandela grew up in a rural South africa where he accepted the supremacy of all things white. It was only after he was politicized in the city by such radicals as Walter Sisulu that he began his transformation to black liberator and icon.
He was born July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village in South africa’s eastern Cape. He was a prince at birth — the son of a chief of the Thembu tribe, part of the Xhosa nation.
In 1941, Mandela was introduced to the anC, the leading black nationalist organization. Obtaining his law degree, he set up the first black law practice in the city with partner Oliver Tambo, who would later become chairman of the anC.
In 1944, he helped found the african national Congress Youth league to prod the staid anC to campaign more actively for an end to racial segregation. eight years later, the 34-year-old Mandela was charged with leading the anC’s defiance Campaign against the passage of stricter apartheid laws.
In the late 1950s, the government made its first attempt to convict Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists in what became known as the Treason Trials. Mandela and his lawyers ridiculed the state’s clumsy attempts to trump up a treason charge, and they were acquitted.
In the 1960s, while europe granted independence to its african colonies and a clamor for freedom went up across the continent, the white government in South africa dug in its heels. The anti-apartheid movement went through a monumental change.
under-cover, in plain sight
after the government declared a state of emergency in 1961, Mandela concluded that the anC had no choice but to resort to a campaign of sabotage. He went underground and was named commander in chief of the anC’s new guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the nation. He received military training in algeria.
For 17 months in the early 1960s, he disguised himself as a chauffeur or a garden boy and eluded police.
The Mandela legend began to build. The anC set up its underground headquarters on a farm in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb.
On aug. 5, 1962, after a trip to africa and europe to seek help training the liberation army, Mandela was driving in natal Province when he was arrested and convicted of incitement and sabotage and sentenced to five years in prison.
He ended up spending nearly three decades in jail. While he was serving his sentence, the government raided the farmhouse in Rivonia and discovered a bounty of evidence linking Mandela to acts of sabotage. This time, the government was playing for keeps. Mandela and other anC leaders were charged with treason.
at the Rivonia trial, Mandela never denied the charges. He turned the defendant’s stand into a pulpit and spent hours explaining why he felt justice compelled him to carry out such acts. His oration was quoted by followers for years to come.
The eight anC leaders got life sentences. at age 44, Mandela and his compatriots were shipped off to Robben Island, a rocky outcrop off Cape Town.
Mandela’s stature grew in prison, through the skillful promotion by the exiled anC leadership.
The apartheid government leaders, petrified that he would die in jail and become more powerful as a martyr, often offered to release Mandela. But the government’s offers always carried conditions — that Mandela agree to renounce the armed struggle, or live under a form of house arrest. Mandela’s defiant refusal merely added to his growing worldwide legend.
In 1986, isolated from his fellow prisoners, Mandela opened a line of communications with the apartheid government.
When President P. W. Botha was ousted in a coup in 1989, Mandela met Botha’s successor, de Klerk. He repeated his demand: He would leave jail only when the government recognized the anC and the Communist Party and agreed to negotiate a new constitution.
On Feb. 11, 1990, de Klerk freed Mandela.
Growing pains and relative peace
It has been by no means an easy transition. Before the 1994 elections, South africa went through its worst episode of political violence, much of it black-on-black killing between the anC and its rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party.
The first few years under Mandela were not smooth as the government sometimes fumbled to deliver on promises to the newly empowered black majority.
Mandela perhaps was not the most able administrator, but his lasting achievement was not so much in governing as in creating the stage for the new government. He made it clear that he had no intention of spending more than one five-year term as president.
In 1999, Mandela retired from politics, moving back to the town of his birth with Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel. They were married in 1998.
Mandela remained fairly healthy through his later years, though he was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001.
In June 2004, at age 85, he announced his formal retirement from public life, and he largely stayed out of the spotlight. In 2007, Mandela convened a group of world leaders, dubbed “The elders,” committed to finding solutions to problems around the globe. He made his final public appearance in 2010 at the World Cup, and in 2011 he met privately with first lady Michelle Obama.
Mandela spent his last years in relative peace, watching the country he loved cope with the growing pains of independence.
“The truth is that we are not yet free,” Mandela wrote, “we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
a young nelson mandela, circa 1937. mandela spent most of his 27 years of imprisonment on robben Island in this small cell (right).