His quest for freedom took him from tribal royalty to prison and then to a presidency to become moral compass for the world.
Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday night. He was 95. South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death.
Mandela’s quest for freedom took him from the court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa’s richest country. And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and handed over power to an elected successor — the country still gnawed by crime, poverty, corruption and disease but a democracy, respected in the world and remarkably at peace. The question most often asked was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite. The government he formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors.
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. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration.
Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F.W. de Klerk.
And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.
The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.
When the question was put to Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.
Except for a youthful flirtation with black nationalism, he seemed to have transcended the racial passions that tore at his country. Some who worked with him said this magnanimity came easily to him because he always regarded himself as superior to his persecutors.
In his five years as president, Mandela, though still a sainted figure abroad, lost some luster at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government. Some blacks — including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his former wife, who cultivated a following among the most disaffected blacks — complained that he had moved too slowly to narrow the vast gulf between the impoverished black majority and the more prosperous white minority. Some whites said he had failed to control crime, corruption and cronyism.
‘Free Nelson Mandela’
But few among his countrymen doubted that without his patriarchal authority and political shrewdness South Africa might well have descended into civil war long before it reached its imperfect state of democracy.
After leaving the presidency, Mandela brought that moral stature to bear elsewhere around the continent, as a peace broker and champion of greater outside investment.
Mandela was deep into a life prison term when he caught the notice of the world as a symbol of the opposition to apartheid, literally “apartness” in the Afrikaans language — a system of racial gerrymandering that stripped blacks of their citizenship and relegated them to reservation-style “homelands” and townships.
Around 1980, exiled leaders of the foremost anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress, decided that this eloquent lawyer was the perfect hero to humanize their campaign against the system that denied 80 percent of South Africans any voice in their own affairs. “Free Nelson Mandela,” which was already a liberation chant within South Africa, became a pop-chart anthem in Britain, and Mandela’s face bloomed on placards at student rallies in the United States aimed at mustering trade sanctions against the apartheid regime.
Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humor, but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London, many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.
In South Africa, though, and among those who followed the country’s affairs more closely, Nelson Mandela was already a name to reckon with.
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.
When Nelson was an infant, his father was stripped of his chieftainship by a British magistrate for insubordination.