© The Canadian Press
Former South African president Nelson Mandela is seen in this file photo.
By Christopher Torchia and Marcus Eliason
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness. South Africa’s first black president spent nearly one-third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, the system of white racist rule that he described as evil, yet he sought to win over its defeated guardians in a relatively peaceful transition of power that inspired the world.
As head of state, the ex-boxer, lawyer and inmate lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration, sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and travelled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister at the time he was sent to prison who was also the architect of white rule.
It was this generosity of spirit that made Mandela, who died on Thursday at the age of 95, a global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation in a world often jarred by conflict and division.
Mandela’s stature as a fighter against white racist rule and seeker of peace with his enemies was on a par with that of other men he admired: American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings.
Mandela pondered the cost to his family of his dedication to the fight against the racist system of government that jailed him for 27 years and refused him permission to attend the funeral of his mother and of a son who was killed in a car crash. In court, he described himself as “the loneliest man” during his mid-1990s divorce from Winnie Mandela. As president, he could not forge lasting solutions to poverty, unemployment and other social ills that still plague today’s South Africa, which has struggled to live up to its rosy depiction as the “Rainbow Nation.”
He secured near-mythical status in his country and beyond. Last year, the South African central bank released new banknotes showing his face, a robust, smiling image of a man who was meticulous about his appearance and routinely exercised while in prison. South Africa erected statues of him and named buildings and other places after him. He shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president. He was the subject of books, films and songs and a magnet for celebrities.
Sought universal rights
In the 1950s, Mandela sought universal rights through peaceful means but was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for leading a campaign of sabotage against the government. The speech he gave during that trial outlined his vision and resolve.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people,” Mandela said. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with 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.”
He was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison near Cape Town for most of his time behind bars, then moved to jails on the mainland. It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, yet he and other jailed members of his banned African National Congress were able to smuggle out messages of guidance to the anti-apartheid movement, and in the final stages of his confinement, he negotiated secretly with the apartheid leaders who recognized change was inevitable.
Thousands died, or were tortured or imprisoned in the decades-long struggle against apartheid, which deprived the black majority of the vote, the right to choose where to live and travel, and other basic freedoms.
So when inmate No. 46664 went free after 27 years, walking hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie out of a prison on the South African mainland, people worldwide rejoiced. Mandela raised his right fist in triumph, and in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he would write: “As I finally walked through those gates ... I felt — even at the age of seventy-one — that my life was beginning anew,”
Mandela’s release, rivaled the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months earlier as a symbol of humanity’s yearning for freedom, and his greying hair, raspy voice and colorful shirts made him a globally known figure.
Continued on page 2...