Nelson Mandela was Freedom fighter, statesman, peacemaker and South Africa’s symbol of the struggle against racial oppression. He served but one presidential term, but it is for his lifelong struggle that he will be remembered. After his 1999 retirement from the presidency, Mandela was considered the ideal head of state. He became a yardstick for African leaders, who consistently fell short when measured against him.
Mandela who emerged from prison after 27 years to lead his country out of decades of apartheid said after he was freed in in 1990 “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,”
His message of reconciliation, not vengeance, inspired the world after he negotiated a peaceful end to segregation and urged forgiveness for the white government that imprisoned him.
Mandela’s life spanned more than nine decades, and he steered the nation out of its darkest days under the racist apartheid regime to the exuberant, democratic Rainbow Nation it is today.
In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd.”
“He stays behind the flock,” he continued, “letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” That would often be his own style as leader and president.
For many South Africans, he was simply Madiba, his traditional clan name. Others affectionately called him Tata, the word for father in his Xhosa tribe. He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei, a former British protectorate in the south. His given name, he enjoyed pointing out, translates colloquially as “troublemaker.” He received his more familiar English name from a teacher when he began school at age 7. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief of the Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.
Mandela was once a young firebrand leader of the then-banned African National Congress, which opposed the racist, white-led apartheid regime. Mandela led the group’s armed wing, an act that landed him in prison for 27 years.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “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 for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mr. Mandela was 44 when he was manacled and put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison. He would be 71 when he was released.
His defiance of white minority rule and long incarceration for fighting against segregation focused the world’s attention on apartheid, the legalized racial segregation enforced by the South African government until 1994.
He was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid in 1960, but was quick to preach reconciliation and forgiveness when the country’s white minority began easing its grip on power 30 years later. The hallmark of Mandela’s mission was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which probed apartheid crimes on both sides of the struggle and tried to heal the country’s wounds. It also provided a model for other countries torn by civil strife.
Mr. Mandela exhibited a genius for the grand gesture of reconciliation. Few in South Africa, whatever their race, were unmoved in June 1995 when the South African rugby team, long a symbol of white arrogance, defeated New Zealand in a World Cup final. Mr. Mandela strode onto the field wearing the team’s green jersey, and 80,000 fans, mostly Afrikaners, erupted in a chant of “Nel-son! Nel-son!”
Mandela last appeared in public during the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa where he received a thunderous ovation from the 90,000 at the stadium in Soweto.
Mandela was elected president in landmark all-race elections in 1994 and retired in 1999. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, an honour he shared with FW de Klerk, the white Afrikaner leader who released from jail arguably the world’s most famous political prisoner.
But his passing will also be keenly felt by people around the world who revered Mandela as one of history’s last great statesmen, and a moral paragon comparable with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
“A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time, He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.” de Klerk told