Nelson Mandela guided South Africa from the oppression of apartheid to non-racial democracy as an icon of peace and reconciliation who came to embody the worldwide struggle for justice. Imprisoned for nearly three decades, he emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” Mandela said in his acceptance speech on becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation.”
In 1993, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour he shared with South Africa’s last white apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk.
He formally left public life in June 2004 before his 86th birthday, telling South Africa and the world: “Don’t call me. I’ll call you”.
But he remained one of the world’s most revered public figures, combining celebrity sparkle with an unwavering message of freedom, respect and human rights.
Whether defending himself at his own treason trial in 1963 or addressing world leaders years later as an elder statesman, he radiated an image of moral rectitude expressed in measured tones, often leavened by a mischievous humour.
“He is at the epicentre of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are,” Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Laureate for Literature, once remarked.
Mandela’s years behind bars made him the world’s most celebrated political prisoner and a leader of mythical stature for millions way beyond South Africa’s borders.
Facing death by hanging in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock is one of the great political statements of all times: “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 cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
It was a speech that was quoted by US President Barrack Obama in his tribute to Mandela early this morning, South African time.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, the son of the chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people in Transkei.
He studied at Fort Hare University, but left in 1940 short of completing his studies and became involved with the ANC, founding its Youth League in 1944 with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.
Mandela worked as a law clerk then became a lawyer. In 1952 he and others were charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act but their nine-month sentence was suspended for two years.
Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation”.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years for incitement and illegally leaving the country. While serving that sentence, he was charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government along with other anti-apartheid leaders in the Rivonia Trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
He was incarcerated on Robben Island where he would spend the next 18 years before being moved to first Pollsmoor, and then Victor Verster, outside Paarl.
When the regime realised it was time to negotiate, it was Mandela to whom it turned.
He was released on February 11, 1990, walking away from the Victor Verster prison hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie, an event watched live by millions across the world.
“As I finally walked through those gates… I felt even at the age of 71 that my life was beginning anew. My 10 000 days of imprisonment were at last over,” Mandela wrote of that day.
In the next four years, thousands of people died in political violence.
Mandela prevented a racial explosion after the murder of Communist Party leader Chris Hani by Janusz Walus in 1993, appealing for calm in a national television address. That same year, he and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Talks between the ANC and the government began in 1991, leading to South Africa’s first all-race elections on April 27, 1994.
The election result was never in doubt. His inauguration in Pretoria on May 10, 1994, was a celebration of a nation’s freedom.
Mandela made reconciliation the theme of his presidency. He took tea with his former jailers and he donned the Springbok jersey – once a symbol of white supremacy – at the final of the World Cup in 1995 at Ellis Park.
In 1999, Mandela handed over to younger leaders. But the stress of his long struggle contributed to the break-up of his marriage to Winnie.
The country shared the pain of their divorce in 1996 before watching his courtship of Graça Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday in 1998.
But prison and old age took their toll on his health.
He was treated in the 1980s for tuberculosis and later required an operation to repair damage to his eyes as well as treatment for prostate cancer in 2001. His spirit, however, remained strong.
“If cancer wins I will still be the better winner,” he told reporters in September of that year. “When I go to the next world, the first thing I will do is look for an ANC office to renew my membership.”
Mandela’s last major appearance on the global stage came in July 2010 when he rode on a golf cart, waving to an exuberant crowd of 90 000 at the soccer World Cup final, one of the biggest events in the country’s post-apartheid history.
“I leave it to the public to decide how they should remember me,” he said, “but I should like to be remembered as an ordinary South African who together with others has made his humble contribution.”