JOHANNESBURG (MCT) – Nelson Mandela, who emerged from more than a quarter-century in prison to steer a troubled African nation to its first multiracial democracy, uniting the country by reaching out to fearful whites and becoming a revered symbol of racial reconciliation around the world, died Thursday. He was 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement in a somber televised address to the nation Thursday. “Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we will bid him farewell,” Zuma said.
Long before his release in 1990, at age 71, Mandela was an inspiration to millions of blacks seeking to end the oppression of more than four decades of apartheid, and his continued imprisonment spawned international censure of South Africa’s white-minority government.
Successive white South African leaders portrayed him as a dangerous terrorist. But when Mandela was freed after 27 years, he surprised many by saying he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.
Preaching reconciliation, he guided the nation through 4 years of on-again, off-again constitutional talks, using his moral authority to address the demands of an impatient black majority while, at the same time, winning over suspicious whites.
Mandela and the man who released him, President Frederik W. de Klerk, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. A year later, Mandela, the son of a tribal chief, succeeded de Klerk after a historic, peaceful election, the images of which were seared into the memory of a global audience: Millions of blacks cast the first votes of their lifetimes.
Under Mandela, the economy grew, a constitution guaranteeing equality and press freedom took root, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed many dark secrets of apartheid and granted amnesty to both whites and blacks accused of political violence.
During his 5-year term in office, Mandela’s formal dignity and his skill in building consensus made him a rarity on a continent beset by corrupt dictators.
As his term drew to a close, he decided not to stand for re-election in 1999 and voluntarily stepped aside – a move almost unheard of among African leaders. His party, the African National Congress, again won the national elections and chose Mandela’s vice president, Thabo Mbeki, as his successor.
After leaving the government, Mandela’s worldwide stature continued to grow. He became active in the fight against AIDS; a son died of the disease in 2005. He also traveled widely in support of human rights and efforts to end poverty and spoke out vehemently against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, at age 85, Mandela announced his retirement from public life.
Mandela’s given name, Rolihlahla, literally means “tree shaker,” or “troublemaker,” in the Xhosa language. He was named Nelson by his teacher on the first day of school, but most South Africans, including those closest to him, called him simply Madiba, the name of his clan and a term of affection and respect.
Mandela, an intensely private person, sometimes chafed at the saint-like celebrity that cloaked him late in life.
“In real life we deal not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, from prison in 1979.
As a leader of the African National Congress, or ANC, Mandela was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, which used state violence and repressive laws to segregate and oppress South Africa’s black majority.
Blacks and “Colored,” or mixed race, people were forced to live in restricted areas and could not move freely without passes. Black mini-nations, known as “homelands” or “bantustans,” were set up in rural areas with few natural resources or amenities. Blacks got a separate, limited education, with a restricted number of places in black universities.
More than 20,000 people died in civil and political strife under apartheid, and thousands more were jailed or tortured. In the years after Mandela was banished to Robben Island, a penal colony in frigid waters off the coast of Cape Town, the nation faced anarchy, while international economic and cultural sanctions made Africa’s richest and most powerful country a global pariah.
In 1985, Mandela wrote to the National Party government from prison, seeking talks on a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Then-President Pieter W. Botha offered to free Mandela if the ANC agreed to lay down its arms. Mandela replied in a message to his daughter, Zindzi, who read it to a crowd gathered in the black township of Soweto.
“I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom,” read Mandela’s message, the first words from him after more than 20 years in prison. “I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.
“Only free men can negotiate,” he said. “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
In 1988, Mandela turned 70 and, a month later, contracted tuberculosis. His illness was successfully treated, but government officials worried they were being held hostage by Mandela’s imprisonment. Releasing him could spark a revolution, but his death in prison might do the same.
The government launched an elaborate plan to demythologize Mandela and “release him in steps,” as one official put it at the time. That year, he was transferred from his prison in suburban Cape Town to a nearby prison farm, where he lived in a three-bedroom house.
Mandela met secretly at the prison, and even in the presidential mansion, with Botha and government ministers to draw up a framework for discussions between the government and the ANC. Botha suffered a stroke in 1989 and de Klerk took over soon after, freeing seven of the longest-serving political prisoners. Four months later, in February 1990, de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and other black political groups and freed Mandela.
The first years after Mandela’s release were rocky. About 10,000 people were killed from 1990 through ’93, many of them in violence between competing black political forces, notably the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Mandela suspected that much of the internecine bloodshed was fomented by white extremists, some operating from inside the government. Infuriated by the government’s reluctance to investigate the killings, Mandela walked out of peace talks in 1992. He returned to the negotiating table several months later.
In April 1994, South Africa staged its first democratic elections and the ANC swept to power in the new multiracial Parliament, which elected Mandela the nation’s first black president. He was 75 years old.