Nelson Mandela stands as one of the most powerful symbolic figures of the past century, embodying notions of freedom, peace, racial reconciliation and the struggle against tyranny.
An impassioned South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
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.
“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,” Mandela said after he was freed in in 1990.
Mandela, as former president, battled health issues in recent years, including a recurring lung infection that led to numerous hospitalizations.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” South African President Jacob Zuma said. “What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
Despite chronic political violence before the vote that put him in office in 1994, South Africa avoided a full-fledged civil war in its transition from apartheid to multiparty democracy. The peace was due in large part to the leadership and vision of Mandela and de Klerk.
“We were expected by the world to self-destruct in the bloodiest civil war along racial grounds,” Mandela said during a 2004 celebration to mark a decade of democracy in South Africa.
“Not only did we avert such racial conflagration, we created amongst ourselves one of the most exemplary and progressive nonracial and nonsexist democratic orders in the contemporary world.”
When the elections were held in April 1994, the ex-prisoner became the next president and embarked on a mission of racial reconciliation, government rebuilding and economic rehabilitation.
A year into his tenure, with racial tensions threatening to explode into civil war, Mandela orchestrated an iconic, unifying moment: He donned the green jersey of the Springboks rugby team – beloved by whites, despised by blacks – to present the World Cup trophy to the team captain while the stunned crowd erupted in cheers of “Nelson! Nelson!”
He chose to serve only one five-year term – during which he divorced his second wife, Winnie, a controversial activist, and married his third, Graca, the widow of the late president of Mozambique.
Springbok captain Francois Pienaar receives the Rugby World Cup from South African President Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 24, 1995.[hr]
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before his release in February 1990. During that time, a global anti-apartheid campaign took off, and his international influence grew exponentially. Below are some of the posters used in the campaign.[scroller]
After leaving politics, he concentrated on his philanthropic foundation. He began speaking out on AIDS, which had ravaged his country and which some critics said he had not made a priority as president.
When he officially announced he was leaving public life in 2004, it signaled he was slowing down, but he still made his presence known. For his 89th birthday, he launched a “council of elders,” statesmen and women from around the world who would promote peace. For his 90th, he celebrated at a star-studded concert in London’s Hyde Park.
As he noted in 2003, “If there is anything that would kill me it is to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do.”
The ANC called him “a colossus.”
“Madiba loved South Africa,” it said in a statement.
“We recall the strength of his fist punching the air as he stepped out of prison after 27 years; and his sternness during the negotiations for the freedom of our beloved country. We celebrate his ever-present smile, the cheerful Madiba jive, his love for children and great respect for the women of this country.