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Nelson Mandela, 1918–2013

The anti-apartheid icon who forged a new South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s life was in the balance in April 1964. The lawyer was on trial for treason and conspiring to overthrow South Africa’s whites-only government, and his own defense team put his chances of being hanged at 50-50. Then he laid out his vision of a multiracial South Africa in an eloquent, four-hour speech. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” said the future president. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.” He addressed his final sentence directly to the judge. “But, my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The judge sentenced Mandela to life in prison. When he was finally set free after 27 years, his moral authority was unquestionable.

Rolihlahla Mandela—his given name means “tree shaker” or “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language—was “a descendant of kings,” said the Daily Mail (U.K.). His grandfather had ruled the Thembu people in the Eastern Cape, and his father served as a tribal chief. Mandela was groomed to be a royal counselor, and at age 7 was sent to a Methodist missionary school, where he was given the English name Nelson. He later attended the University College of Fort Hare, then the only college in South Africa offering degrees to blacks, but was expelled in 1940 following a protest over food.

On returning home and discovering that a marriage was being arranged for him with a local girl, Mandela “sneaked off to Johannesburg,” said The Washington Post. He found work at a liberal white law firm and in 1943 joined the African National Congress, which aimed to win black South Africans the vote and other basic rights denied under white rule. “A steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities,” he later wrote, had produced “an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.” The oppression of the black majority grew worse in 1948, when Afrikaner nationalists won a whites-only election and instituted a policy of apartheid—Afrikaans for “apartness”—that mandated racial discrimination in every aspect of life.

In 1952, Mandela opened the country’s first black law firm with his college friend Oliver Tambo. The young lawyers tried to work through the courts, but “the redress his black clients needed from apartheid was, quite simply, impossible to obtain,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Mandela became more overt in his battle against apartheid, organizing strikes and demonstrations. Then in 1960, the white regime killed 69 peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville and outlawed the ANC. Convinced “that drastic steps were needed,” Mandela abandoned his commitment to nonviolence. He founded the ANC’s guerrilla wing—the “Spear of the Nation”—and led a bombing campaign against power stations, electrical towers, and empty government offices. He was arrested in 1962, and two years later sentenced to life in jail.

“Mandela would spend a total of 27 years in prison, most of them on Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz,” said The Times (U.K.). He labored in the jail’s limestone quarry, breaking rocks into gravel. The dust permanently damaged his eyesight, and he later contracted tuberculosis from a damp cell. Yet Mandela never gave in to despair. He came to act as a spokesman, lawyer, and teacher for Robben Island’s political prisoners, and slowly won them better conditions. In 1982 he was moved to a lower-security prison and allowed personal visits. It had been 21 years, he later recalled, since he’d held the hand of his second wife, Winnie.

Outside the prison walls, South Africa was by then in chaos. Black communities were in full revolt, and the white government was increasingly isolated by sanctions and the international “Free Mandela” campaign. When the government offered in 1985 to release him if he’d renounce violence, said NewYorker.com, “he replied that it was the government that needed to renounce violence, and he declined the offer.” But Mandela did take up secret negotiations with the white authorities, and in 1990 President F.W. de Klerk opened talks with the ANC and began dismantling apartheid. That February, the 71-year-old Mandela walked free.

“When released from prison, he did not renounce armed struggle, viewing it as a way to keep pressure on the government,” said NPR.org. Yet he also refused to support the younger, more aggressive blacks who wanted a full-fledged battle with the white government and its security forces. “We can’t win a war, but we can win an election,” Mandela said. He was right. In 1994, the ANC won the country’s first democratic election, and Mandela became the country’s first black president. In power, his gestures of racial reconciliation shocked black supporters and former white enemies alike. He appointed one of his old jailers ambassador to Austria and drank tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. And while his Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed many dark secrets of apartheid, it granted amnesty to both whites and blacks accused of political violence.

When his five-year term was up, Mandela declined a second one, and unlike so many revolutionaries handed over power to an elected successor. Critics noted that his government had largely failed to meet its promise to improve health care and education and to reduce poverty and corruption. “But South Africa’s democracy brought a multiracial Parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press, and integrated schools,” said the Los Angeles Times. “A new constitution guaranteed long-denied rights and freedoms.” Mandela always downplayed his role in South Africa’s success, and particularly objected to being seen as a saint. “I should like to be remembered as an ordinary South African,” he once said, “who together with others has made his humble contribution.”

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