Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black President, beaome an international emblem of dignity and forbearance.
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 cheerfully 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 about Mandela 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. 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 rancour, 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 genuinely transcended the racial passions that tore at his country. Some who worked with him said this apparent 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 lustre at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government.
Undoubtedly Mandela had become less attentive to the details of governing.
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 humanise their campaign against the system that denied 80 percent of South Africans any voice in their own affairs.
“Free Nelson Mandela,” 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 America 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 humour, 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, 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, showing a proud stubborn streak his son willingly claimed as an inheritance.
Nine years later, on the death of his father, young Nelson was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu — not as an heir to power, but in a position to study it. He would become worldly and westernised, but some of his closest friends would always attribute his regal self-confidence (and his occasional autocratic behaviour) to his upbringing in a royal household.
In his autobiography, 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 realising that all along they are being directed from behind”.
That would often be his own style as leader and President.
The enlarging of Mandela’s outlook began at Methodist missionary schools and the University College of Fort Hare, then the only residential college for blacks in South Africa. Studying law at Fort Hare, he fell in with Oliver Tambo, another leader-to-be of the liberation movement.
On returning to his home village, he learned that his family had chosen a bride for him. Finding the woman unappealing and the prospect of a career in tribal government even more so, he ran away to the black metropolis of Soweto.
There he was directed to Walter Sisulu, who ran a real estate business and was a spark plug in the African National Congress. Sisulu looked upon the tall young man with his aristocratic bearing and confident gaze and, he recalled in an interview, decided that his prayers had been answered.
Mandela, though he never completed his law degree, opened the first black law partnership in South Africa. He took up amateur boxing, rising before dawn to run roadwork.
Tall and slim, he was also somewhat vain. He wore impeccable suits, displaying an attention to fashion that would much later be evident in the elegantly bright loose shirts of African cloth that became his trademark.
Impatient with the seeming impotence of their elders in the African National Congress, Mandela, Sisulu and other militants organised the ANC Youth League, issuing a manifesto so charged with Pan-African nationalism that some of their non-black sympathisers were offended.
Africanism versus non-racialism: that was the great divide in liberation thinking. The black consciousness movement, whose most famous martyr was Steve Biko, argued that before Africans could take their place in a multiracial state, their confidence and sense of responsibility must be rebuilt.
Mandela, too, was attracted to this doctrine of self-sufficiency.
In his conviction that blacks should liberate themselves, he joined friends in breaking up Communist Party meetings because he regarded communism as an alien, non-African ideology, and for a time he insisted that the ANC keep a distance from Indian and mixed-race political movements.
In 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.
It was an abrupt shift for a man who, not many weeks earlier, had proclaimed non-violence an inviolable principle of the ANC. He later explained that forswearing violence “was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon”.
Taking as his text Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, Mandela became the first commander of a motley liberation army, grandly named Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.
Although he denied it throughout his life, there is persuasive evidence that about this time Mandela briefly joined the South African Communist Party, the ANC’s partner in opening the armed resistance. Mandela presumably joined for the party’s connections to Communist countries that would finance the campaign of violence.
Until the late 1980s the CIA portrayed the ANC as Communist-dominated. There have been allegations, neither substantiated nor dispelled, that a CIA agent had tipped the police officers who arrested Mandela.
South Africa’s rulers were determined to put Mandela and his comrades out of action. In 1956, he and scores of other dissidents were arrested on charges of treason. The state botched the prosecution, and after the acquittal Mandela went underground.
Upon his capture he was charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport. His legend grew when, on the first day of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.
Next Mandela and eight other ANC leaders were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state — capital crimes.
At Mandela’s suggestion, the defendants, certain of conviction, set out to turn the trial into a moral drama that would vindicate them in the court of world opinion. Among themselves, they agreed that even if sentenced to hang, they would refuse on principle to appeal.
The four-hour speech with which Mandela opened the defence’s case was one of the most eloquent of his life, and it established him as the leader not only of the ANC but also of the international movement against apartheid.
Under considerable pressure from liberals at home and abroad to spare the defendants, the judge acquitted one and sentenced Mandela and the others to life in prison.
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.
The harsher side
Despite his saintly image, Mandela could be harsh.
When black journalists mildly criticised his government, he painted them as stooges of
the whites who owned the
media. Whites with complaints were sometimes dismissed as pining for their old privileges.
To critics of his closeness to Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, Mandela insisted he
wouldn’t forsake supporters
of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Mandela was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison
off the coast of Cape Town for most of his time behind bars. He and others quarried
limestone there, working seven hours a day nearly
every day for 12 years, until forced labour was abolished on the island. In secret,
Mandela — inmate No. 46664 — wrote at night in his tiny concrete-floored cell.It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, but go-
betweens ferried messages from prisoners to
anti-apartheid leaders in exile. Prisoners gathered in small groups for Socratic seminars, and Mandela offered lessons on the movement to guards he thought would be open
to persuasion. All the guards were white; all the prisoners were black, mixed race,