Nelson Mandela, 95, passes away Thursday night
Remembered for legacy of revolution and activism in South African emancipation
Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday night. He was 95.
The South African president, Jacob Zuma, announced Mandela’s death.
Mandela had long said he wanted a quiet exit, but the time he spent in a Pretoria hospital this summer was a clamor of quarreling family, hungry news media, spotlight-seeking politicians and a national outpouring of affection and loss. The vigil even eclipsed a visit by President Barack Obama, who paid homage to Mandela but decided not to intrude on the privacy of a dying man he considered his hero.
Mandela ultimately died at home at 8:50 p.m. local time, and he will be buried according to his wishes in the village of Qunu, where he grew up. The exhumed remains of three of his children were reinterred there in early July under a court order, resolving a family squabble that had played out in the news media.
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 rancor, 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 luster at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government.
Some blacks — including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s former wife, who cultivated a following among the most disaffected blacks — complained that he had moved too slowly to narrow the vast gulf between the impoverished black majority and the more prosperous white minority. Some whites said he had failed to control crime, corruption and cronyism. Some blacks deserted government to make money; some whites emigrated, taking capital and knowledge with them.
Undoubtedly Mandela had become less attentive to the details of governing, turning over the daily responsibilities to the deputy who would succeed him in 1999, Thabo Mbeki.
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.
An education 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.
Robben Island, in shark-infested waters about seven miles off Cape Town, had over the centuries been a naval garrison, a mental hospital and a leper colony, but it was most famously a prison. For Mandela and his co-defendants, it began with a nauseating ferry ride, during which guards amused themselves by urinating down the air vents onto the prisoners below.
The routine on Robben Island was one of isolation, boredom and petty humiliations, met with frequent shows of resistance. By day the men were marched to a limestone quarry, where the fine dust stirred up by their labors glued their tear ducts shut.
But in some ways prison was less arduous than life outside in those unsettled times. For Mandela and others, Robben Island was a university. Mandela learned Afrikaans, the language of the dominant whites, and urged other prisoners to do the same.
He honed his skills as a leader, negotiator and proselytizer, and not only the factions among the prisoners but also some of the white administrators found his charm and iron will irresistible. He credited his prison experience with teaching him the tactics and strategy that would make him president.
Almost from his arrival he assumed a kind of command. The first time his lawyer, George Bizos, visited him, Mandela greeted him and then introduced his eight guards by name — to their amazement — as “my guard of honor.” The prison authorities began treating him as a prison elder statesman.
Perhaps because Mandela was so revered, he was singled out for gratuitous cruelties by the authorities. The wardens left newspaper clippings in his cell about how his wife had been cited as the other woman in a divorce case, and about the persecution she and her children endured after being exiled to a bleak town 250 miles from Johannesburg. He was denied permission to attend the funerals of his mother and of his oldest son, who died in a car accident.
Still, Mandela said he regarded his prison experience as a major factor in his nonracial outlook. He said prison tempered any desire for vengeance by exposing him to sympathetic white guards who smuggled in newspapers and extra rations, and to moderates within the National Party government who approached him in hopes of opening a dialogue. Above all, prison taught him to be a master negotiator.
Mandela’s decision to begin negotiations with the white government was one of the most momentous of his life, and he made it like an autocrat, without consulting his comrades, knowing full well that they would resist.
“My comrades did not have the advantages that I had of brushing shoulders with the VIPs who came here, the judges, the minister of justice, the commissioner of prisons, and I had come to overcome my own prejudice towards them,” he recalled. “So I decided to present my colleagues with a fait accompli.”
With an overture to Kobie Coetsee, the justice minister, and a visit to President P.W. Botha, Mandela, in 1986, began what would be years of negotiations on the future of South Africa. The encounters, remarkably, were characterized by mutual shows of respect. When he occupied the president’s office, Mandela would delightedly show visitors where Botha had poured him tea.
Mandela demanded as a show of good will that Walter Sisulu and other defendants in the Rivonia trial be released. President F.W. de Klerk, Botha’s successor, complied.
In the last months of his imprisonment, as the negotiations gathered force, he was relocated to Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town, where the government could meet with him conveniently and monitor his health. He lived in a warden’s bungalow. He had access to a swimming pool, a garden, a chef and a VCR. A suit was tailored for his meetings with government luminaries.
From the moment they learned of the talks, Mandela’s allies in the ANC were suspicious, and their worries were not allayed when the government allowed them to confer with Mandela at his quarters in the warden’s house.
Mandela seated his visitors at a table and patiently explained his view that the enemy was morally and politically defeated, with nothing left but the army, the country ungovernable. His strategy, he said, was to give the white rulers every chance to retreat in an orderly way. He was preparing to meet de Klerk, who had just taken over from Botha.
Free in a changed world
In February 1990, Mandela walked out of prison into a world that he knew little, and that knew him less. The African National Congress was now torn by factions — the prison veterans, those who had spent the years of struggle working legally in labor unions, and the exiles who had spent them in foreign capitals. The white government was also split, with some committed to negotiating an honest new order while others fomented factional violence.
Over the next four years Mandela would be embroiled in a laborious negotiation, not only with the white government, but also with his own fractious alliance.
While Mandela had languished in prison, a campaign of civil disobedience was underway. No one participated more enthusiastically than Winnie Mandela.
A troubled marriage
By the time of her husband’s imprisonment, the Mandelas had produced two daughters but had little time to enjoy a domestic life. For most of their marriage they saw each other through the thick glass partition of the prison visiting room: for 21 years of his captivity, they never touched.
She was, however, a megaphone to the outside world, a source of information on friends and comrades and an interpreter of his views through the journalists who came to visit her. She was tormented by the police, jailed and banished with her children to a remote Afrikaner town, Brandfort, where she challenged her captors at every turn.
By the time she was released into the tumult of Soweto in 1984, she had become a firebrand. She surrounded herself with young thugs who terrorized, kidnapped and killed blacks she deemed hostile to the cause.
Friends said Mandela’s choice of his cause over his family often filled him with remorse — so much so that long after Winnie Mandela was widely known to have conducted a reign of terror, long after she was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of young township activists, long after the marriage was effectively dead, Mandela refused to utter a word of criticism.
In 1995 Mandela finally filed for divorce, which was granted the next year after an emotionally wrenching public hearing.
Mandela later fell publicly in love with Graça Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique and an activist in her own right for humanitarian causes. They married on Mandela’s 80th birthday. She survives him, as do his two daughters by Winnie Mandela, Zenani and Zindziswa; a daughter, Makaziwe, by his first wife; 17 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
A deal for majority rule
Two years after Mandela’s release from prison, black and white leaders met in a convention center on the outskirts of Johannesburg for negotiations that would lead, fitfully, to an end of white rule. While out in the country extremists black and white used violence to try to tilt the outcome their way, Mandela and the white president, de Klerk, argued and maneuvered toward a peaceful transfer of power.
Eventually, though, Mandela and his negotiating team, led by the former labor leader Cyril Ramaphosa, found their way to the grand bargain that assured free elections in exchange for promising opposition parties a share of power and a guarantee that whites would not be subjected to reprisals.
At times, the ensuing election campaign seemed in danger of collapsing into chaos. Strife between rival Zulu factions cost hundreds of lives, and white extremists set off bombs at campaign rallies and assassinated the second most popular black figure, Chris Hani.
But the fear was more than offset by the excitement in black townships. Mandela, wearing a hearing aid and orthopedic socks, soldiered on through 12-hour campaign days, igniting euphoric crowds packed into dusty soccer stadiums and perched on building tops to sing liberation songs and cheer.
During elections in April 1994, voters lined up in some places for miles. The African National Congress won 62 percent of the vote, earning 252 of the 400 seats in Parliament’s National Assembly and ensuring that Mandela, as party leader, would be named president when Parliament convened.
Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10, and he accepted office with a speech of shared patriotism, summoning South Africans’ communal exhilaration in their land and their common relief at being freed from the world’s disapproval.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” he declared.
Limitations as president
As president, Mandela set a style that was informal and multiracial. He lived much of the time in a modest house in Johannesburg, where he made his own bed.
Mandela’s instinct for compromise in the interest of unity was evident in the 1995 creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, devised to balance justice and forgiveness in a reckoning of the country’s history. The panel offered individual amnesties for anyone who testified fully on the crimes committed during the apartheid period.
In the end, the process fell short of both truth (both white officials and ANC leaders were evasive) and reconciliation (many blacks found that information only fed their anger).
But it was generally counted a success, giving South Africans who had lost loved ones to secret graves a chance to reclaim their grief, while avoiding the spectacle of endless trials.
There was a limit, though, to how much Mandela — by exhortation, by symbolism, by regal appeals to the better natures of his constituents — could paper over the gulf between white privilege and black privation.
He tried with limited success to transform the police from an instrument of white supremacy to an effective crime-fighting force. Corruption and cronyism (which predated majority rule) blossomed. Foreign investment, despite the universal high esteem for Mandela, kept its distance.
Racial divisions, kept in check by the euphoria of the peaceful transition and by Mandela’s moral authority, re-emerged somewhat as the ultimate problem of closing the income gap remained unresolved.
Mandela himself deferred to his party, notably in the choice of a successor. After the party favorite, Mbeki, had succeeded to the presidency, Mandela let it be known that he had actually preferred the younger Ramaphosa, the former mine workers’ union leader who had negotiated the new Constitution. Mbeki knew and resented that he was not the favorite, and for much of his presidency he snubbed Mandela.
As a former president, Mandela lent his charisma to a variety of causes on the African continent, joining peace talks in several wars and assisting his wife, Graça, in raising money for children’s aid organizations.
In 2010, the World Cup soccer games took place in South Africa, another sporting-world benediction of the peace Mandela did so much to deliver to his country. But for Mandela, the proud occasion turned to heartbreak when his 13-year-old granddaughter Zenani was killed in an auto accident while returning from an opening-day concert. Mandela, who had been instrumental in luring the tournament to its first African setting, canceled his plans to attend the opening day.
By then, his hearing and memory shaky, he had already largely withdrawn from public debate, declining almost all interview requests and confining himself to scripted public statements on issues like the war in Iraq. (He was vehemently against it.)
When he received a reporter for the 2007 interview, his aides were already contending with a custody battle over Mandela’s legacy — including where he would be buried and how he would be memorialized. Mandela insisted that his burial be left to his widow, and be done with minimal fanfare. His acolytes had other plans.