Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner who became the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa and whose heroic life and towering moral stature made him one of history’s most influential statesmen, died Dec. 5, the government announced. He was 95.
The death was announced in a televised address by President Jacob Zuma, who added, “we’ve lost our greatest son.” No cause was provided.
To a country torn apart by racial divisions, Mandela became its most potent symbol of national unity, using the power of forgiveness and reconciliation to heal deep-rooted wounds and usher in a new era of peace after decades of conflict between blacks and whites. To a continent rife with leaders who cling to power for life, Mandela became a role model for democracy, stepping down from the presidency after one term and holding out the promise of a new Africa.
And to a world roiled by war, poverty and oppression, Mandela became its conscience, fighting to overcome some of its most vexing problems. He was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 27 years in prison as part of his lifelong struggle against racial oppression.
Throughout this moral and political fight, Mandela evoked a steely resolve, discipline and quiet dignity, coupled with a trademark big, charismatic smile. He ultimately carried them into office as South Africa’s first democratically elected and black president.
His victory capped decades of epic struggle by the African National Congress and other liberation groups against South Africa’s brutal white rulers, first under British colonialism and then under a white-run system called “apartheid,” or racial separation.
On the historic day of his inauguration — May 10, 1994 — Mandela stood at the podium near South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk. A year earlier, they shared the Nobel Prize for what the Nobel committee called “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa.”
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation,” Mandela, then 75, declared as the new president. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another … the sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.”
Only a few years before, the 20th century’s most celebrated political prisoner had been dubbed a “terrorist” by the conservative governments in the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, respectively.
In the decades following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, many South Africans of all races referred to him reverentially as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name. Countless others called him Tata, which means father in the Xhosa language.
For all his achievements, Mandela will also be remembered as slow to react to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began sweeping South Africa on his watch. It was not until 1998, four years into his presidency, that he directly addressed the South African public about the disease. Later, he would acknowledge that he did not recognize the severity of the epidemic.
After he left office in 1999, Mandela devoted substantial energy and resources, both personally and through his Nelson Mandela Foundation, to raising awareness of the epidemic. In 2002, he publicly criticized his successor, Thabo Mbeki, for delays in implementing a plan to fight HIV/AIDS.
In 2005, the epidemic hit home. A somber Mandela announced the death of his son, Makatho Mandela, 54, who had AIDS.
Mandela’s years as president also were characterized by the public and political drama of his estrangement from his wife, Winnie Mandela. Separated in 1992, the pair divorced in 1996 after court proceedings in which the usually private Mandela described himself in open court as “the loneliest man.”
At the same time, he had to address the insecurities and animosities of the white minority that had lost political power but still controlled South Africa’s economy, military and bureaucracy.
The Afrikaners, descendants of 17th century Dutch and French settlers, were especially traumatized by the transition to black rule, and their control of the military posed a potential threat to the young democracy in the early years of Mandela’s presidency.
Though institutional policies were put in place to deal with white fears — such as a sunset clause allowing white civil servants and soldiers to stay in their jobs as long as they wanted — Mandela also used his powers of persuasion to disarm opponents, defuse threats and charm detractors.
Under Mandela’s leadership, South Africa slowly began eradicating racism from its legal canon, governmental institutions and school textbooks. A new Constitutional Court was inaugurated in 1995 as the highest court in the land. Among its early rulings was the abolition of the death penalty.
In 1996, parliament approved a new national constitution, including a bill of rights guaranteeing protections most South Africans had never imagined. For instance, South Africa was the first nation in the world to enshrine the protection of the rights of gays in its constitution.
That same year, Mandela launched the country’s Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Rather than Nuremburg-style trials, Mandela’s government fostered truth-telling and amnesty. On one hand, that meant killers who confessed would not be prosecuted. On the other hand, it helped ensure that the seeds of more racial hatred would not be planted.
Mandela sought to bridge the lingering divides between blacks and whites in other ways, too. When South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he encouraged blacks to support the much-hated Springboks, the national rugby team that was widely seen by blacks as a totem of white rule.
When the Springboks won a riveting final over New Zealand, Mandela wore a Springbok shirt and presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. The gesture was widely viewed as a major step toward racial reconciliation.
For all his strengths and bottomless energy, Mandela faced a seemingly impossible task as president: In a nation where millions of people still lived in shacks, where non-whites had been purposefully impoverished and undereducated, he had to meet the expectations and hopes of the teeming masses who had propelled him to high office.
Today, millions of South Africans still live in deep poverty, without running water or electricity. Whites still largely control the economy. Blacks speak openly about the “economic apartheid” in the country.
Mandela understood that he would perhaps never see the South Africa he had envisioned the day he stepped out of prison, but he sought until his last days to achieve that vision.
“When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and oppressor both,” Mandela wrote on the last page of his memoir, “A Long Walk to Freedom.” “The truth is that we are not yet free. . . . We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in the village of Mvezo in Transkei, a region bordering the Indian Ocean. His mother was Nosekeni Fanny, the third of four wives of Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, who was chief of Mvezo and counselor to two successive Xhosa kings.
Mandela’s tribal name, Rolihlahla, carried the colloquial meaning “troublemaker” — perhaps a portent, he mused later. He grew up amid the deeply traditional customs, rituals and taboos of the Xhosas, including communication with ancestors.
Shortly after his birth, his family was plunged into poverty when a British colonial magistrate deposed his chiefly father. The family moved to Qunu, a village where Mandela maintained a home until the day he died.
When Mandela was 9, he was sent, upon his deceased father’s instructions, to live at the Great Place at Mqhekezweni, the seat of the regent of the Thembu people. There, among tribal aristocracy, he was groomed for leadership.
He also was steeped in the severities of a Methodist mission education and discipline. He attended a Methodist mission boarding school called Clarkesbury in the town of Engcobo and later Healdtown, a Wesleyan school at Fort Beaufort.
At 21 and wearing his first suit, Mandela entered the University College of Fort Hare, the region’s only institution of higher education for Africans. At Fort Hare, Mandela met Oliver Tambo, who would become the leader of the ANC, and other young activists. Mandela studied law at Fort Hare but was expelled because of his activism.
To escape a marriage being arranged for him, he sneaked off to Johannesburg, where he encountered Walter Sisulu, who would become his comrade, confidante, alter ego and fellow prisoner at Robben Island. At first, Mandela worked as a mine policeman. He took correspondence courses from the University of South Africa. And with Sisulu’s recommendation smoothing the way, he clerked in a liberal white law firm. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1942 and enrolled the following year to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
In 1943, Mandela joined the ANC, which exposed him to a multi-racial group of liberation theorists, Communists and Africanists who would help shape his political and social views. Five years later, formal apartheid began in South Africa; the National Party came to power and imposed its racist theories on separate development.
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” Mandela wrote in his memoir.
Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Mandela organized and agitated on behalf of the ANC. He held positions in the ANC’s youth wing and in the main organization. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, Mandela was initially committed to nonviolent resistance regime. He worked in concert with the Natal Indian Congress, an anti-racism group that Gandhi had helped found.
Mandela practiced law and raised two sons and a daughter with his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, whom he married in 1944. Another daughter died in infancy.
By 1952, Mandela had become president of the ANC’s largest branch, in the Transvaal. That same year, he and Tambo opened the only firm of black lawyers in South Africa. They provided free or low-cost legal counsel to blacks.
Mandela was arrested for the first time in 1952 while organizing an ANC defiance campaign. A court decreed that he could not legally be in the presence of more than two people at a time. Such repression drove activists like Mandela underground; in 1954, Mandela devised what he called the “M Plan” of small street cells to carry out nonviolent defiance of apartheid.
In 1955, the year he separated from Evelyn, Mandela met Winnie Madikizela, a young social worker. A year later, he and 155 others were charged with treason. They originally were jailed but were released as the case dragged on. It ended in 1961 with verdicts of not guilty.
Mandela and Madikizela married in 1958, a union that became part and parcel of the liberation struggle. His new wife became an activist in her own right.
As the ANC stepping up its activism, so did a related group, the Pan African Congress. In what would emerge as a turning point in the black liberation struggle, the PAC organized a protest on March 21, 1960, in the black township called Sharpeville.
As demonstrators marched to decry the laws that required blacks to carry a pass to enter cities or other white areas, police opened fire, killing 69 people.
The apartheid state clamped down with a state of emergency during which several leading figures were jailed, including Mandela.
In 1961, Mandela and others in the ANC formed an armed wing, called Umkonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. Popularly known as “MK,” the wing carried out a sporadic underground sabotage and guerrilla campaign.
In 1962, just after returning from MK fundraising travels across Africa, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for incitement and illegally departing the country.
The next year, police arrested almost the entire leadership of MK. Along with Mandela, they were charged with treason, but when the case went to trial, the charges were changed to sabotage and conspiracy. They were convicted and expected to be hanged.
At sentencing, in the last public statement that Mandela would utter until 1990, he said: “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have described the cherished ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Instead of death, Judge Quartus de Wet sentenced him to Robben Island prison, where he would spend 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid regime, confined to a tiny cell and forced to do hard labor in the prison quarry.
During Mandela’s years in prison, South Africa’s townships became increasingly restive, leading to the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which police killed several schoolchildren. State repression deepened. In 1977, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who helped launch the Black Consciousness movement, was beaten to death in police custody.
In the 1980s, as the state employed a series of states of emergency against opponents, the international campaign to change South Africa gathered steam. Economic sanctions were imposed and various boycotts were launched. At the center of the campaign was an effort to free Mandela.
In 1982, Mandela was transferred to the Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland near Cape Town. A few years later, a series of secret talks began between Mandela and President P.W. Botha, who offered to release Mandela if he renounced violence. Mandela would not.
At the same time, Afrikaners of the National Party began tentative talks with the ANC in exile, led by Tambo, Mandela’s old law partner. Those talks were the precursors to Mandela’s release in 1990 and the unbanning of anti-apartheid organizations.
Botha’s successor, de Klerk, and the National Party of 1990 thought they could free Mandela and still negotiate reforms that would leave the nation’s white minority with a veto power over black rule. But Mandela’s walk to freedom in 1990 set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately lead to free and fair elections and majority rule four years later.
Mandela suffered some setbacks to his image as president. He tolerated inept cabinet members who had been loyal comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle. Some blacks believed he spent too much time seeking reconciliation with whites. Others resented his penchant for granting an audience to just about any kind of visiting celebrity, from the Spice Girls to Louis Farrakhan.
In 1998, Mandela married Graca Simbine Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel. Besides Machel, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Makaziwe; two children from his second marriage, Zindzi and Zenani; and grandchildren.
In retirement, Mandela did not recede from the public eye. In 2008, a frail Mandela attended a star-studded London concert to celebrate his 90th birthday. He struggled to walk to the podium. But then, in a strong voice, flashing his trademark smile, he urged everyone to support his campaign against global poverty and oppression.
On his 93rd birthday, an estimated 12 million South African students sang “Happy Birthday” to him in a nationwide sing-a-long.
Lynne Duke, a former Washington Post reporter, died in April 2013.
© 2013, The Washington Post