‘We’ve lost our greatest son’: Mandela dies at 95


Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, delivers remarks at a program in Washington, D.C., in this file photo from May 16, 2005. Mandela died on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

By Andrew Maykuth

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, an extraordinary moral authority who became South Africa’s first black president and inspired the peaceful transfer of power in the harshly segregated nation, has died.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who made the announcement, said: “We’ve lost our greatest son.”

Mr. Mandela, 95, who devoted his life to fighting apartheid, became one of the 20th century’s most revered leaders after he was released from nearly three decades in prison in 1990 and led the nation on a path to reconciliation rather than revolution.

He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F. W. de Klerk, the former South African president who negotiated the white government’s abdication of power, resulting in Mr. Mandela’s landslide 1994 election in the nation’s first nonracial vote.

Along with de Klerk, he was awarded the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia in 1993.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

President Obama said the world has lost an influential, courageous and “profoundly good” man. Obama said Mandela “no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”

During Mr. Mandela’s 27 years in prison, the antiapartheid movement promoted him as a mythic figure. Millions of people around the globe shouted “Free Mandela” for a man so concealed from public view that he could only be depicted by artists interpreting old photographs. When he finally was freed, he was one of the rare heroes who actually lived up to his legend.

Some called him a saint when he emerged from prison not embittered but emboldened to heal the nation and lead it to a measured transition from white minority rule.

“I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

With equanimity and wit, he disarmed his adversaries. The National Party government released him from prison assuming it would be able to maneuver him into a deal that would effectively perpetuate white rule, but it was outsmarted by Mr. Mandela.

A shrewd and skillful politician, Mr. Mandela was one of the few black leaders who had the credibility to bridge the gap between radicals and moderates in the African National Congress, the liberation movement that now governs South Africa. His strength as a leader was to tone down militant blacks who wanted to settle scores after more than three centuries of racial oppression and to reassure nervous whites that they had a place in South Africa’s future, thus preserving the nation’s dynamic economy.

On a continent where many leaders are seduced by power, Mr. Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term in office. He then devoted his energy to charity and diplomacy. In 2007, he founded a “council of elders” — fellow Nobel peace laureates, politicians, and development leaders — to pool their influence to tackle global crises.

When he turned 90 on July 18, 2008, his admirers held tributes around the world — at a huge rock concert in London and dinners for his children’s charity. Mandela received a few hundred people at his home in his rural childhood village of Qunu.

“We are honored that you wish to celebrate the birthday of a retired old man, who no longer has power or influence,” he said in a public radio message.

His last public appearance was in 2010, when South Africa hosted soccer’s World Cup. Increasingly frail, slowed by failing knees and vision, he spent his final years in private.

It was a testament to Mr. Mandela’s immense influence that even during his retirement, commentators continued to worry that his death would renew doubts that racial peace could be maintained in the absence of the “Old Man.”

Genteel, dignified, and noble, Mr. Mandela also had what one writer called a “puckish streak.” He was full of joie de vivre and would sometimes break out into a spontaneous slow-shoe dance that came to be known as the “Mandela Jive.” He could also be stern and unforgiving to those who did not heed his orders.

Affectionately known as “Madiba,” his Xhosa clan name, Mr. Mandela was elected president when he was 75. He kept up a punishing schedule and tended to his health carefully. He did not smoke, did not eat red meat, and sipped wine publicly only when it was helpful for promoting South Africa’s vineyards. His routine of doing exercise at 4 a.m. was sometimes attributed to the regimen of prison life, but Mr. Mandela said it actually dated to his youth as an amateur boxer, when he did his roadwork before dawn.

His age and stature permitted him unchallenged freedom. He loved to flirt with pretty women, who glowed in his attention. He disdained business suits on all but state occasions, opting for colorful print shirts that became his trademark.

As a public speaker, he was stiff and formal, especially when reading a speech. But he had a charming smile and a magical ability to enchant a crowd, and he would linger long after his bodyguards began to grow nervous, to ensure that he shook every hand in a room.

Mr. Mandela was beyond reproach, and he was treated gently by the South African news media. When an ANC defector in 1996 accused an indicted casino magnate of giving the party a $500,000 campaign contribution, the ANC initially dismissed the claim as “blatantly false.” Then, Mr. Mandela acknowledged that he had accepted the contribution. The propriety of the deed was never questioned. Mr. Mandela’s word was final, and the issue died.

He sacrificed his family life to the antiapartheid struggle. He divorced his first wife because she did not share his passion for politics. He spent the prime of his adult life in jail, losing touch with his children and growing distant from his second wife, Winnie Mandela.

The couple were divorced after an embarrassing public trial in 1996, when the cuckolded Mr. Mandela painfully described his unfulfilled advances to his wife. It was a rare, revealing moment for a man imbued with Old World reserve.

“I am not and never have been a man who finds it easy to talk about his feelings in public,” he wrote in his memoir.

Mr. Mandela married a third time, in 1998, to Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel.

Mr. Mandela grew up in a rural South Africa, where he accepted the supremacy of all things white. It was only after he was politicized by radicals such as Walter Sisulu that he begin his transformation to black liberator and icon.

He was born July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the temperate land between the Indian Ocean and the majestic Drakensberg Mountains. He was a prince at birth — the son of a chief of the Thembu tribe, part of the Xhosa nation.

Groomed for chieftaincy by tribal elders and schooled in the modern ways by British missionaries, he developed the ability at a young age to bridge South Africa’s many and varied cultures.

He grew up in Qunu, an Xhosa village in the Transkei “reserve,” where men measured their status by the quantity of wives and livestock they tended.

His father died when Mr. Mandela was 12, and the young boy became the ward of his cousin, the paramount chief of the region.

His Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, means “someone who brings trouble on himself.”

He was suspended from Fort Hare University for political activism and fled his village to avoid an arranged marriage with a girl he considered ugly. He stole a neighbor’s cow to pay his train fare to Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg in 1941, Mr. Mandela was introduced to the ANC, the leading black ist organization. He obtained his law degree and set up the first black law practice in the city. His partner was Oliver Tambo, who would later become party chairman.

The young Mandela was fond of snazzy suits and fast cars — he cruised around Johannesburg in an Oldsmobile. Photos from the day depict a beefy, bearded Mandela smoking cigarettes — far from the gaunt, gray man who emerged from prison decades later.

In 1944, he helped found the African National Congress Youth League to prod the staid ANC to campaign more actively for an end to racial segregation.

Eight years later, Mr. Mandela, then 34, was charged with leading the ANC’s Defiance Campaign against the passage of stricter apartheid laws.

In his memoir, Mr. Mandela told a story about himself that revealed much about the ways of a man who could change tactics to get what he wanted.

In 1952, he ran out of gas in the Boer countryside. In his finest lawyer’s English, he asked to borrow some fuel from a white woman at a farmhouse. She slammed the door in his face.

At the next farmhouse, he switched to Afrikaans and adopted a servile pose. He told an Afrikaner farmer that his baas — his white boss — needed gas. He got the fuel and was on his way.

It was an oft-repeated pattern: Mr. Mandela could bend people to his will, from the lowliest dirt farmer to the very architects of apartheid.

In the late 1950s, the government made its first attempt to convict Mr. Mandela in what became known as the Treason Trials. Mr. Mandela and his lawyers ridiculed the state’s clumsy attempts to trump up a treason charge against him and scores of other antiapartheid activists, and they were acquitted.

During the trial, his marriage to his first wife, Evelyn, disintegrated. She had become a Jehovah’s Witness and had begun to proselytize Mr. Mandela, urging him to convert his commitment to the struggle to a commitment to God.

“My devotion to the ANC and the struggle was unremitting,” he later wrote. “This disturbed Evelyn. She had always assumed that politics was a youthful diversion, that I would someday return to the Transkei and practice there as a lawyer.”

When he came home from the trial one day, his house was empty and silent.

She had taken even the curtains.

During the trial, he met Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, a striking social worker known as Winnie. They married in 1958. The couple would spend only three years together before Mr. Mandela was on the run.

In the 1960s, while Europe granted independence to many of its African colonies and a clamor for freedom went up across the continent, the white government in South Africa dug in its heels. The antiapartheid movement went through a monumental change.

After the government declared a state of emergency in 1961, Mr. Mandela concluded that the ANC had no choice but to resort to a campaign of sabotage. He went underground and was named commander in chief of the ANC’s new guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation. He received military training in the North African country of Algeria.

For 17 months in the early 1960s, he disguised himself as a chauffeur or a garden boy and eluded police. The Mandela legend began to build.

The ANC set up its underground headquarters on a farm in Rivonia, a suburb north of Johannesburg. Mr. Mandela moved in under pretext that he was a houseboy, using the alias of David Motsamayi. He wore the blue overalls of a laborer. Workers on farm ordered him about, calling him waiter. He made them breakfast.

On Aug. 5, 1962, after he had returned from a trip to Africa and Europe to seek help training the liberation army, Mr. Mandela was driving in Natal province when he looked in the rearview mirror and saw two cars approaching.

He knew they were the police.

“Those days, I was still very fresh and fit,” he recalled to guests in 1996 on the anniversary of his arrest. “I thought I could dash away. But when I saw the two cars at the back, I said: ‘No, I’d better be alive and await another opportunity.’ “

He was arrested and convicted of incitement and sabotage and sentenced to five years in prison.

He ended up spending nearly three decades in jail.

While he was serving his sentence, the government raided the farmhouse in Rivonia and discovered evidence linking Mr. Mandela to acts of sabotage. Mandela and other ANC leaders were charged with treason.

At the Rivonia trial, Mr. Mandela never denied the charges. He turned the defendant’s stand into a pulpit and spent hours explaining why he felt that justice compelled him to carry out such acts. His oration was quoted by followers for years to come.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said on the stand. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. 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.”

The eight ANC leaders got life sentences. At age 44, Mr. Mandela and his compatriots were shipped off to Robben Island, a rocky outcrop off Cape Town that had once served as a leper colony.

“I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars,” he later wrote. “Perhaps I was denying this prospect because it was too unpleasant to contemplate. But I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.”

Forced to spend the prime of his life doing menial labor, Mr. Mandela relinquished neither his principles nor his humanity.

He insisted that his jailers address him as “Mr. Mandela.” It took years, but his demands that black prisoners be issued trousers instead of short pants and meat instead of gruel were successful.

He strangled Afrikaner bureaucrats with their own petty regulations. From prison, he filed dozens of legal briefs protesting violations of arcane prison codes.

He also studied, read, and conducted a kind of university in liberation strategy on Robben Island.

“We all thought we were going to take power the Cuban way,” Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow prisoner, told an interviewer. “But by the time we came off the island, we knew we were going to do it Mandela’s way. He taught us to confront the regime where it was weakest — at the bargaining table — rather than where it was strongest — on the battlefield.”

Mr. Mandela’s stature grew in prison, through the skillful promotion by the exiled ANC leadership and by Winnie, who was living a life of arrests, harassment, and internal banishment. She was not permitted to even see her husband for 21 years.

The apartheid government’s leaders frequently offered to release Mr. Mandela — it was terrified that he would die in jail and become more powerful as a martyr. But the government’s offers always carried conditions — that Mr. Mandela agree to renounce the armed struggle or live under a form of house arrest. Mr. Mandela’s defiant refusal merely added to his growing worldwide legend.

In 1986, Mr. Mandela took what he regarded as “the greatest political risk of my life.” Isolated from his fellow prisoners, he opened a line of communication with the apartheid government.

“I had concluded that the time had come when the struggle could best be pushed forward through negotiations,” he wrote. “If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war.”

Mr. Mandela did not inform his fellow political prisoners or the exiled ANC leadership about his secret talks. When his comrades found out, they were hurt and suspicious and all but accused Mr. Mandela of selling out.

Mr. Mandela justified the deceit. He was confident of his ability to co-opt others without co-opting himself.

At the presidential palace, he met President P.W. Botha, who impressed Mr. Mandela by serving him tea. When Botha was ousted in a palace coup in 1989, Mr. Mandela met Botha’s successor, de Klerk. Mr. Mandela repeated his demand: He would leave jail only when the government lifted the ban on the ANC and the Communist Party and agreed to negotiate a new constitution.

On Feb. 11, 1990, de Klerk freed Mr. Mandela. Although Mr. Mandela and de Klerk later shared the Nobel Prize, Mr. Mandela did not have warm feelings about the man who let him out of prison.

“He was a gradualist, a careful pragmatist,” Mr. Mandela wrote. “He did not make any of his reforms with the intention of putting himself out of power.”

But Mr. Mandela also was a pragmatist. He emerged from prison as if in a time capsule, still talking about nationalizing the mines. He quickly caught on that the rest of the world was discarding the tenants of socialism.

He also made sure that the end of white minority rule was scripted during the negotiations that followed his release from prison but that some measure of white control was preserved.

It was by no means an easy transition. Before the 1994 elections, South Africa went through its worst episode of political violence, much of it black-on-black killing between the ANC and its leading rival organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The first few years of ANC government under Mr. Mandela were not smooth as the government groped with the reins of power, sometimes fumbling to deliver on promises to the newly empowered black majority for a greater share of South Africa’s wealth — promises still unfulfilled nearly two decades later. About a third of the workforce remains unemployed today.

Mr. Mandela was perhaps not the most able government administrator, but his lasting achievement was not in governing as much as it was in creating the miraculous stage for the new government.

In 2008, as ANC factions fought bitterly over the organization’s leadership, Mandela delivered a message of unity that would represent a monumental legacy, if it were followed.

“Our nation comes from a history of deep division and strife,” he said. “Let us never, through our deeds or words, take our people back down that road.”