Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter who emerged from 27 years in prison to become South Africa’s first elected black president and a global symbol of reconciliation, has died. He was 95.
He died at 8:50 p.m. yesterday at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, South African President Jacob Zuma said in a televised speech to the nation. In September, he was discharged from a hospital, where he had been treated since June for a recurring lung infection.
Released from prison in 1990, Mandela negotiated a peaceful end to the old regime with leaders of South Africa’s white minority government. Three years later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He served as president from 1994 to 1999, before stepping down voluntarily.
Mandela came to symbolize proof that seemingly intractable disputes could be resolved. Former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao and warring factions in Burundi all asked him to help mediate conflicts. On his part, Mandela never wavered from espousing non-violence after the settlement talks began.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” U.S. President Barack Obama said. “The day he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears.”
“So long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him,” he said.
Mandela was “probably the single most admired, most respected international figure in the entire world,” Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote on Mandela’s 85th birthday. “I cite his ready willingness to embrace and reconcile with those who persecuted him the most, and the grace with which he stuck to his promise to serve only one presidential term.”
Tragedy and turmoil marked his personal life. Mandela divorced his second wife, Winnie, in 1996 after accusing her of “brazen infidelity.” She was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping an alleged police informant while Mandela was still incarcerated. One of his sons died while Mandela was in prison and another succumbed to AIDS in 2005.
In struggling for a half-century against apartheid, Mandela rose to prominence within the African National Congress at several critical junctures. In 1961, he founded the party’s armed wing, transforming a movement that had drawn inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance in India to one that used bombs. On his release from prison in 1990, he persuaded the ANC to renounce violence in favor of talks.
Denounced by U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a “terrorist” in the 1980s, Mandela became a statesman who visited Queen Elizabeth II and counted former U.S. President Bill Clinton as a personal friend.
“Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room, we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day,” Clinton said in 1998.
Mandela, who liked listening to classical music while watching the sun set, sought to find common ground with adversaries and emphasized shared goals rather than differences. More than a negotiating strategy, it was a way of life he embraced in prison. There he befriended white guards and later invited them as honored guests to his presidential inauguration.
“Without doubt, it is the commitment to reconciliation that stands at the core of the Mandela legacy,” said former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa James Joseph. “When others doubted whether it was still possible for old enemies to beat their swords into plowshares, he showed us how.”
He won the trust of Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last president of South Africa elected in a whites-only election, in their first meeting. Their relationship helped keep talks on course over the next four years as violence raged on the streets of South Africa’s townships.
“I went away from that meeting feeling that I was dealing with a man whose integrity I could trust, that I could do business with,” de Klerk said of their first encounter in an interview with PBS radio. De Klerk went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.
Aside from de Klerk, Mandela won over most white South Africans, who were reassured by his words of reconciliation. That message took concrete form when he established a commission that granted amnesty to soldiers, policemen and even assassins, provided they confessed to what they had done.
“Our goal was general amnesty in exchange for the truth,” Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told Bloomberg News in a 1999 interview. “It was the only way we could heal a tormented, divided and fragmented people.”
Mandela set an example of forgiveness for the country as a whole, wrote Nadine Gordimer, a South African novelist and Nobel laureate for literature. She described him as “a revolutionary leader of enormous courage” and “a political negotiator of extraordinary skill and wisdom, a statesman in the cause of peaceful change.”
Mandela’s skills and insight into his country’s passion for sports, depicted in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” led him to forge a remarkable national unity that helped South Africa gain an upset victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the remote village of Mvezo in the south-east of South Africa. The son of a Tembu chief, he was named Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker,” until his first day at school. His teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson to conform to the British bias in education.
Mandela was drawn to politics in his teens while listening to elders talk about the freedom they had before white rule.
“Among the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defense of the fatherland,” he said in court in 1964 when facing charges of sabotage. “I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people.”
Mandela, educated at a missionary school, fled home at 23 to dodge a marriage arranged by a white guardian, who described his future wife as “a girl, fat and dignified.”
In the 1940s, he became an enthusiastic boxer, rising at 4:30 a.m. every day as part of an early morning exercise routine that lasted most of his life. After qualifying as a lawyer and establishing the first black law firm in South Africa, Mandela helped turn the ANC from an organization of teachers, preachers and intellectuals into a mass movement backed by labor unions.
His conversion from non-violent politics to advocating armed struggle was sparked by the 1960 police massacre of 69 people in Sharpeville who were protesting laws requiring non-whites to carry internal passports.
He became the first commander of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Zulu for “Spear of the Nation,” studied guerrilla warfare in Algeria and helped set up training camps in Tanzania before being arrested on his return to South Africa.
Conducting his own defense in 1964, Mandela spelled out a dream of racial equality, declaring “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.”
While jailed, first on Robben Island off Cape Town where he broke limestone in a quarry, and later in a warder’s house, he refused to denounce the ANC’s armed struggle, the price he could have paid for freedom. In the late 1980s, he opened secret talks with the government.
De Klerk, who was told of the talks only after his election as South Africa’s State President in 1989, pushed ahead with them, allowing the ANC to return to the country and freeing Mandela on Feb. 11, 1990. As the international media looked on, Mandela emerged from the prison gates dressed in a suit to join his wife on a long walk to freedom as thousands jostled to get a glimpse of their hero.
The four years of talks leading up to the first democratic election in April 1994 were a violent epoch in South Africa’s history with the emergence of state-sponsored assassinations and massive counter-protests.
In the end, Mandela’s “initiative and F. W. de Klerk’s response has given the world an example of wise and peaceful resolution of what many thought was irreconcilable conflict,” said Bobby Godsell, former chief executive officer of AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Africa’s largest gold producer.
Aside from winning the trust of most whites, Mandela also engaged with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to end conflict between his Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC. The rivalry had threatened to erupt into civil war after claiming more than 10,000 lives before the 1994 elections.
After retiring from office, Mandela criticized South Africa’s early support for Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe and pleaded for free drug treatment for those infected with HIV.
Largely ignored by his successor, Thabo Mbeki, he became increasingly outspoken. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mandela called George W. Bush a president “who can’t think properly” and Vice President Dick Cheney a “dinosaur.”
He also began to reveal more of himself. At a conference on tuberculosis, he said he felt shame when diagnosed with the disease and that it had been difficult to discuss AIDS as president at first because of a hesitancy to talk about sex.
Mandela redressed this by becoming a champion of the fight against AIDS, publicly embracing people with HIV and disclosing that three of his family members had died of the disease. His eldest son, Makgatho, died in January 2005, prompting Mandela to call for renewed efforts to fight the deadly illness.
Some critics said Mandela should have done more while in office to fight HIV, which has infected as many as one in nine South Africans. South Africa also is still afflicted by inequalities, with almost a quarter of its working-age population jobless.
Yet because of its transition to democracy, constitutional checks and balances and an open economy, South Africa under Mandela was viewed as a model for other developing nations.
“His real legacy is the period after the negotiations, where he consistently preached reconciliation,” said Nic Borain, a political analyst based in Cape Town. “There were criticisms of him being authoritarian, but there was never any sense of him being mean-spirited or of putting himself before the country.”
Mandela married his third wife, Graca Machel, in 1998. He also had three daughters.