Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, into the royal house of Thembu of the Madiba clan, in the village of Mvezo, which sits on a bare, rocky hill above a bend in the Mbashe River, a day’s walk from the town of Umtata in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Though he didn’t believe names were destiny, Mandela acknowledged that “friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.” In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he relates how his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, called him Rolihlahla, which translates from Xhosa literally as “pulling a branch off a tree” but more colloquially as “troublemaker.”
Mandela would go on to make enough trouble for apartheid South Africa that he was able to defeat it even from inside a prison cell. His lifetime of unyielding struggle and, later, his forgiveness of his enemies came to be regarded all but universally as one of the finest articulations ever of the human spirit. Not only did the awe he inspired help him overturn racism and make peace between black and white in South Africa, but by the time he stepped down as the country’s first black President in 1999 at age 80, he was, almost without rival, the most admired person on earth–seen as a secular saint, an embodiment of human greatness and an icon of peace and wisdom.
His father was a counselor to the Thembu King, and Rolihlahla was the eldest child of his father’s third wife Nosekeni Fanny–one of 13 children in all. The boy would later be given the English name Nelson by his schoolteacher; Mandela was the name of his grandfather.
Rebellion was in Mandela’s blood. When his father was summoned by the local white magistrate, Mphakanyiswa refused on principle and was promptly deposed. Mandela was sent to school so that he might one day succeed his father as a royal counselor, and it was here that his path to revolution began. He attended University College of Fort Hare, a private institution on the Eastern Cape that was a hotbed of antiestablishment thinking. When he moved to Johannesburg to pursue his interest in law, he had his first experience of street lighting, ham and white friends.
The more he explored this new world, the more he left behind the old. On the Eastern Cape, his royal lineage guaranteed respect. In Johannesburg, Mandela would have to make his own way–and while it was tough, he also enjoyed the fresh beginning. In the 1940s, Mandela married, started a family and became a lawyer, and in 1952 he founded South Africa’s first black law firm, with Oliver Tambo. But as he learned more about how limited his freedom was, he began to read Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao. Mandela wrote that he found himself “being drawn into the world of politics because I was not content with my old beliefs.” Still, his graduation to freedom fighter was slow. He worried about spending time away from his children and whether politics was “merely pretext for shirking one’s responsibilities.” He also had “no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments [which] produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944, when he helped set up its Youth League as a crucible for the party’s firebrands. The white-supremacist National Party won election in South Africa in 1948 and institutionalized a racist constitution in a set of laws known as apartheid–literally, apartness. Blacks were banned from the better neighborhoods, the better jobs, the better farmland and the better schools. Most were banished to undeveloped areas in the country’s interior, designated black homelands; if they were allowed into white areas, it was under strict conditions–pass laws–that prescribed when, where, who, how and why.
Mandela, together with comrades like Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, helped organize a series of mass protests. The demonstrators had a rallying cry. A speaker would call out, “Amandla,” meaning “Power.” The crowd would reply, “Ngawethu,” meaning “Is ours.” The regime did not share the sentiment and responded with violence, shooting dead 18 demonstrators in 1950. After that, Mandela began to favor fighting fire with fire. “For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy,” he wrote. “There is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”
Arrests, trials and bans–preventing him from leaving his home or meeting with more than one person at a time–became Mandela’s life. It had been a period of some hope: old empires were crumbling. But the apartheid regime refused to bend to the winds of change that were sweeping Africa. Mandela and 29 others were arrested for high treason in 1956. In the meantime, his domestic life was changing. In 1958 he divorced his first wife Evelyn, who disliked politics, and married Nomzamo Winifred “Winnie” Madikizela. Nomzamo means “she who struggles (or undergoes trials)”–“a name,” Mandela noted, “as prophetic as my own.” The couple lived in Soweto (an acronym for South Western Townships) on a street that would later also be home to Desmond Tutu.
The treason trials took five years–a time during which South Africa’s security forces killed 69 protesters at Sharpeville, then imposed a state of emergency–but Mandela and his comrades were eventually found not guilty. On his release, Mandela immediately went underground, growing a beard and disguising himself as a gardener or, when he needed to travel, as a chauffeur, often driving a white accomplice, who would sit in a rear seat. It was a manner of living that came easily to him. “To be a black man in South Africa meant not to trust anything, which was not unlike living underground for one’s entire life,” he wrote. As he evaded capture for months, moving among safe houses and hideouts, the South African press gave him the nickname the Black Pimpernel–a reference to the Scarlet Pimpernel, a fictional escape artist and master of disguise concocted by an early 20th century writer.
In 1961, after years of arguing for an end to nonviolence, the ANC authorized Mandela to set up a military wing. The party called its new unit Umkhonto we Sizwe–MK for short–meaning Spear of the Nation. Though the ANC executive was barred to white members, MK’s membership was open to all, and Mandela immediately recruited several white communists, including Joe Slovo (a leader of the South African Communist Party) and others with expertise in demolition. He arranged for MK guerrillas to be trained in China, undertook a fundraising tour in independent African states, met British political leaders in London and underwent eight weeks of military training in Ethiopia. In December 1961, MK carried out its first acts of sabotage, bombing power stations in three cities.
In August 1962, Mandela was arrested once again and put on trial for inciting labor unrest and leaving South Africa without permission. When he appeared in a Johannesburg court in front of his white peers–and saw their embarrassment at how their fellow professional was being prosecuted for his beliefs–he had an epiphany. “I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy.” It was an insight that Mandela would need.
He was sentenced to five years in prison. But that penalty would be extended dramatically after the government discovered an MK hideout at a farm in Rivonia outside Johannesburg. Among the documents found was what the state declared to be a plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa with the assistance of foreign arms shipments. Defense lawyers insisted that the so-called Operation Mayibuye (a word roughly meaning to return to the beginning) was merely a proposal and that many ANC officials, including Mandela, believed it was unrealistic and unlikely to succeed if undertaken. Nevertheless, the court found Mandela guilty and extended his five-year sentence to life in prison.
In a stirring flourish to the first act of his life, Mandela would use his third trial, the Rivonia case, as a stage from which to address South Africa. Risking the death penalty by admitting his membership in MK, he said, “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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.”
Mandela was transferred to Robben Island after his sentencing. In its ignominious past, the flat, windswept rock off Cape Town, battered by the icy waters of the Atlantic, had been a leper colony, a lunatic asylum and a colonial prison where in 1819 the British banished the prophet-warrior commander of the Xhosa rebel army, Makana. Jail was harsh. The guards imposed punishment for even the mildest infractions of regulations. The inmates were made to pound rocks with hammers to create gravel and to mine lime at a quarry. Apartheid persisted even behind bars: black prisoners were given worse food and clothing, their beds were mats on the floor, and they were forced to address the guards as baas, meaning boss. As was intended, serving a sentence on Robben Island meant almost total isolation from the outside world. Mandela went years without seeing his family. When his mother and eldest son died, he was denied permission to attend their funerals. Rigid routine meant the days were endless but also indistinguishable. “The mind begins to turn in on itself,” wrote Mandela.
Partly as a survival strategy, Mandela and his comrades resolved to continue their fight inside jail: “I was in a different and smaller arena, [but] the prison was a microcosm of the struggle. We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same.” Through protests and petitions, Mandela and his comrades gradually improved conditions. In the 1970s, manual labor was stopped. Mandela began a prison garden and wrote a secret memoir, later the basis for his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Crucially, while his opposition to apartheid remained fierce, he began to see the humanity in his enemies. “All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency,” he wrote. “If their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing.”
And if Mandela was changing, the outside world was too. On a 1979 trip to a white Cape Town doctor after he injured his heel, Mandela was treated well and thought he sensed a thawing in the relationship between black and white. Mandela was also becoming an international icon for people of all colors. During the Rivonia trial, he had been elected honorary president of the students’ union at University College in London; dockworkers around the world threatened not to handle South African goods; and the U.N., members of the U.S. Congress and the leader of the Soviet Union all protested the trial. Mandela became a global symbol of injustice, not least because in 1980 the ANC’s leaders in exile decided to explicitly personalize their struggle around him. No longer would they march under banners decrying racism in South Africa. Henceforth their slogan would be simply “Free Mandela.” The phrase quickly found its way onto T-shirts and posters around the world and even into a pop song.
In 1976, when South Africa’s security forces fired on students in Soweto who were protesting having to study in Afrikaans, the township erupted. After that, townships across the country became no-go areas for the police and army, and in retrospect, the Soweto uprising was the beginning of the end for apartheid, though the end would take a decade and a half. In 1982, Mandela and some of the ANC’s top leaders were abruptly transferred to the mainland Cape Town prison of Pollsmoor, where they were given a bed, sheets, their own balcony, a living room and newspapers. In 1984, Mandela was allowed to hug Winnie for the first time in 21 years. In 1985, President P.W. Botha publicly offered Mandela his freedom if he renounced violence. Mandela’s response was read by his daughter Zindzi to a crowd of supporters in Soweto. “I am not a violent man. It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle … Let [Botha] renounce violence. Let him say he will dismantle apartheid … I cherish my freedom dearly, [but] what freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. I cannot, and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”
That same year, the prison wardens separated Mandela from his comrades. Mandela was angered, but he also realized “my solitude gave me a certain liberty, and I resolved to use it to do something I had been pondering for a long while: begin discussions with the government.” This was, wrote Mandela, “extremely sensitive. Both sides regarded discussions as a sign of weakness and betrayal. The government asserted over and over that we were a terrorist organization of communists, and that they would never talk to terrorists or communists. The ANC asserted over and over that the government was fascistic and racist and that there was nothing to talk about until they unbanned the ANC, unconditionally released all political prisoners and removed the troops from the townships. I chose to tell no one what I was about to do. There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock.”
Contact with the government began tentatively. Mandela met South Africa’s Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee, in 1985. In 1988 he had a series of meetings with a four-man group from the government, including Coetsee. They demanded that he give up the armed struggle and break the ANC’s alliance with the Communist Party. Mandela refused both requests. A third point of contention was majority rule: Mandela insisted on it; the government worried that it would sideline South Africa’s whites forever.
Once talks were under way, the conditions of Mandela’s imprisonment improved further. He was allowed out of prison for escorted visits to Cape Town–after his long stretch in jail, there was no danger of his being recognized. Then, in December 1988, he was moved to his own bungalow on the grounds of a third prison, Victor Verster, in the Cape Winelands, where he could hold more talks and receive visits from ANC comrades and others. Most of his ANC comrades were opposed to Mandela’s negotiations. But he had a disarming effect on them. The up-and-coming trade-union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, now ANC deputy president, was among those who vowed to demand that Mandela stop talking to the enemy. But once he met Mandela, said Ramaphosa, “what could I do? This old man walks into the room, he comes straight up to me, and he asks me how my wife and my son are doing … This old man, who knows everything! He just disarms you, mesmerizes you completely, takes you in.” On July 5, 1989, Mandela finally met Botha for half an hour at his office in Cape Town. Little of substance was discussed, but that they met at all was a breakthrough. “Now, I felt, there was no turning back,” wrote Mandela.
There wasn’t. When Botha was replaced by F.W. de Klerk a month later, De Klerk immediately began dismantling apartheid. In October he released eight of Mandela’s most senior comrades. Segregation was repealed and the secret service disbanded. In years to come, Mandela and De Klerk would disagree vehemently, but when they first met on Dec. 13, 1989, they had near identical reactions. “From the first I noticed that Mr. de Klerk listened to what I had to say,” wrote Mandela. “Mr. de Klerk … was a man we could do business with.” In 2009, De Klerk told Time, “The first time I met Mandela … I noticed how good a listener he was. I reported back to my constituency and said, ‘This is a man I can do business with.'”
On Feb. 2, 1990, De Klerk announced that the ban was lifted on the ANC and all other parties and all political prisoners would be freed. The state of emergency would end. On Feb. 9, Mandela was driven to De Klerk’s office in Cape Town and told he would be freed the next day. After 27½ years in prison, shortly before 4 p.m. on Feb. 11, with Winnie by his side, Mandela walked out of the gates of Victor Verster. Met by a crowd of supporters and journalists, Mandela raised his right fist in the ANC salute. That evening he spoke to a crowd of thousands gathered outside city hall in Cape Town. “Amandla!” Mandela called out. “Ngawethu!” they responded.
Mandela ’emerged from 27 years in prison, drawing people to him with that huge smile and an eccentric old-fashioned courtesy,” wrote Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society, in his biography of the continent. “Suddenly here was a voice that had earned the right to speak big truths about life and politics. After all the fury and bitterness, all the pain and anger, that voice was gentle, relaxed and full of hope.” Tutu would later say Mandela’s time in jail “was not wasted. He had gone to jail as an angry, frustrated young activist. In prison the fires of adversity purified him and removed the dross; the steel was tempered. He learned to be more generous in his judgment of others, being gentle with their foibles. It gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges–paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest.”
So it was, in the endless speeches and press conferences that followed, that Mandela stressed reconciliation. “I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.” He told reporters at his first press conference, “Whites are fellow South Africans, and we want them to feel safe and to know we appreciate the contribution that they have made toward the development of this country.” His countrymen often didn’t listen. White security forces shot black protesters. The demonstrators fought back. Supporters of the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party battled activists from the ANC. The police and Inkatha even worked together to orchestrate violence through the early 1990s. In August 1990, the ANC suspended armed actions, but in the streets hundreds of people were dying every month. In June 1992, when an Inkatha mob killed 46 residents of a pro-ANC township, Mandela suspended talks with the government.
Mandela had other problems at home. In April 1992, he announced his separation from Winnie, who had been convicted of kidnapping Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old ANC supporter suspected of treachery. (One of Winnie’s bodyguards was found guilty of the boy’s murder.) Mandela blamed his life, and his stature, for the breakdown. “She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.” The time away from his family, Mandela added, “has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made … To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy.”
At the end of 1993, Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And despite more near disasters, like the assassination of the popular Communist Party leader Chris Hani by a white extremist, the pair reached an agreement on a new constitution, an interim government of national unity and a general election to be held on April 27, 1994.
The election campaign saw more bloodshed but also more reconciliation. In a televised debate with De Klerk, Mandela worried that he had been too hard on the man who would be his partner in the government of national unity and urged his audience not to be distracted from the fact “that we are a shining example to the entire world of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty, a common love, to their common country. Sir, you are one of those I rely upon to face these problems together.” Mandela then reached over and took De Klerk’s hand. “I am proud to hold your hand for us to go forward,” he said.
Two weeks later–on a day Tutu described as “like falling in love”–Mandela, then 75, cast the first vote of his life. On May 10 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black President and, borrowing a phrase from Tutu, declared South Africa to be a “rainbow nation” and his election “a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity.” He continued, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. Let freedom reign.”
Outside jail, Mandela’s star only rose further. His near canonization came to be an annoyance for other ANC and African leaders, who were henceforth forever in his shadow. Mandela himself agreed that the veneration went too far. After his retirement from public office in 1999, he would tell visitors he was “just a man.” He had made mistakes, he said, not least failing to spot the growth of HIV/AIDS, an error he tried to repair with fundraising and campaigning into his late 80s. He had also put cause before family, something that cost him two marriages. (He married his third wife Graça Machel, widow of a former Mozambican President, on his 80th birthday in 1998.) “My family paid a terrible price, perhaps too dear a price, for my commitment,” he said. “My commitment to my people … was at the expense of the people I knew best and loved most.” It was no surprise that Mandela devoted his last years to spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But Mandela enjoyed the spotlight too. In retirement, he continued to meet with global figures, hosting giants such as U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama but also making time for the Spice Girls. According to legend, when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe complained to Mandela that he, Mugabe, had been the star of Africa before Mandela emerged from prison, Mandela teased Mugabe that the star had been replaced by the sun. He used the limelight too, shining it not only on HIV/AIDS but also on a legion of other causes: human rights, development and, as head of a group of venerable statesmen called the Elders, crisis diplomacy. And he remained a thorn in the side of the powerful, criticizing them if he felt they abused their position, as when he spoke out against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There was nothing inevitable about the world’s idolization of Mandela: he came from poverty, he took up arms, he was black, and he lived in far-off Africa. But in a world so often split by division and hatred and weighed down by ignorance and prejudice, there were few systems so universally acknowledged to be unjust as apartheid. Accordingly, Mandela’s struggle, the lessons it held and the pronouncements he made also came to be viewed as universal truths. “Courage is not the absence of fear,” he wrote, “but the triumph over it.” Elsewhere he wrote, “The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” Perhaps what most moved his admirers around the world–and most inspired them–was that despite Mandela’s suffering, the pain of his family and the death of so many of his friends, his message was one of hope. He remained, he said, “fundamentally an optimist.” He believed in “keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” A lifetime of struggle taught him, he said, that “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” Mandela’s legacy is final proof of that. His flame may now be extinguished. But his goodness will never be.