JOHANNESBURG: Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness.
South Africa’s first black president spent nearly a third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, yet he sought to win over its defeated guardians in a relatively peaceful transition of power that inspired the world.
As head of state, the former boxer, lawyer and inmate lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration. He sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and traveled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of the prime minister in power at the time he was sent to prison.
It was this generosity of spirit that made Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, a global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation in a world often jarred by conflict and division.
Mandela’s stature as a fighter against apartheid — the system of white racist rule he called evil — and a seeker of peace with his enemies was on a par with that of other men he admired: American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings.
Mandela’s death deprived the world of one of one of the great figures of modern history and set the stage for days of mourning and reflection about a colossus of the 20th century who projected astonishing grace, resolve and good humor.
Dressed in black, South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement on television. He said Mandela died “peacefully,” surrounded by family, at around 8:50 p.m.
“We’ve lost our greatest son. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” Zuma said. “Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
At times, Mandela embraced his iconic status, appearing before a rapturous crowd in London’s Wembley Stadium soon after his 1990 release from prison. Sometimes, he sought to downplay it, uneasy about the perils of being put on a pedestal.
Fighting for democracy
But he secured near-mythical status in his country and beyond. Last year, the South African central bank released new bank notes showing his face, a robust, smiling image of a man who was meticulous about his appearance and routinely exercised while in prison. South Africa erected statues of him and named buildings and other places after him. He shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president. He was the subject of books, films and songs and a magnet for celebrities.
In the 1950s, Mandela sought universal rights through peaceful means but was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for leading a campaign of sabotage against the government. The speech he gave during that trial outlined his vision and resolve.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people,” Mandela said. “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 which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
A long walk to freedom
He was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison near Cape Town for most of his years behind bars, then moved to jails on the mainland. It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, yet he and other jailed members of his banned African National Congress were able to smuggle out messages of guidance to the anti-apartheid movement, and in the final stages of his confinement, he negotiated secretly with the apartheid leaders who recognized change was inevitable.
Thousands died, or were tortured or imprisoned in the decades-long struggle against apartheid, which deprived the black majority of the vote, the right to choose where to live and travel, and other basic freedoms.
So when inmate No. 46664 went free after 27 years, walking hand-in-hand with his then wife, Winnie, out of a prison on the South African mainland, people worldwide rejoiced. Mandela raised his right fist in triumph, and in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote: “As I finally walked through those gates … I felt — even at the age of seventy-one — that my life was beginning anew.”
Mandela’s release, rivaled the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months earlier as a symbol of humanity’s yearning for freedom.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, the son of a tribal chief in Transkei, a Xhosa homeland that later became one of the “Bantustans” set up as independent republics by the apartheid regime to cement the separation of whites and blacks. Mandela’s royal upbringing gave him a regal bearing that became his hallmark. Many South Africans would later call him by his clan name, Madiba, as a token of affection and respect.
Growing up at a time when virtually all of Africa was under European colonial rule, Mandela attended Methodist schools before being admitted to the black University of Fort Hare in 1938. He was expelled two years later for his role in a student strike.
Mandela began his rise through the anti-apartheid movement in 1944, when he helped form the ANC Youth League. In 1962, police uncovered the ANC’s underground headquarters and seized plans for a guerrilla campaign.
Mandela and seven co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela’s final years were marked by frequent hospitalizations as he struggled with respiratory problems that had bothered him since he contracted tuberculosis in prison.