Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa credited with ending apartheid there, died Thursday at his home in South Africa. He was 95 years old.
Mandela was revered worldwide for leading the anti-apartheid movement and not letting his nearly three decades in prison shake his determination.
South African President Jacob Zuma said in an address Thursday, “Our nation has lost its greatest son.”
Former PBS NewsHour correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who interviewed Nelson Mandela several times, prepared a remembrance of the South African leader.
Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in a small village in what is now Eastern Cape province of South Africa. A teacher at a British colonial boarding school later gave him the English name Nelson.
As a boy, Mandela spent his free time playing with the other children in Qunu, swimming, catching fish, stick-fighting and making animals out of clay. He became a herd boy, looking after sheep and cattle, by age 5.
“From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
After his father, a counselor to the Thembu royal family, died, a 9-year-old Mandela was taken in by the acting regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, according to the BBC.
Mandela attended Fort Hare University in southeast South Africa and became involved in the political struggles connected with the discriminatory practices in the country at the time. He was expelled in 1940 for participating in a student demonstration with his friend Oliver Tambo.
When Mandela returned home and discovered his tribal chief had already made arrangements for him to marry, he ran away to Johannesburg. There, he completed his course work through the University of South Africa and received his bachelor’s degree in 1942.
He became increasingly involved in the African National Congress, a group dedicated to bringing democratic political change to South Africa, and alarmed by the injustices he was seeing around him, helped form the ANC Youth League with Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others in 1944, according to his foundation’s Web site. Mandela became the group’s president a few years later.
View scenes of Nelson Mandela’s life.
The same year he formed the ANC Youth League, Mandela married his first wife Evelyn Mase. They had three children together — a son, Makgatho, a daughter, Makaziwe, and a third child, Thembi, who was killed in a car accident while Mandela was in prison — before they divorced in 1957.
Mandela earned a law degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and, according to his foundation, set up South Africa’s first black law firm with Tambo in 1952.
Mandela then immersed himself in leading non-violent campaigns of civil disobedience, including strikes, marches and demonstrations against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies, which led to a series of arrests and acquittals starting in 1952.
In 1956, he was arrested for treason, which led to a lengthy, four-year trial, but eventually the charges were dropped.
During the trial, Mandela married Winnie Madikizela, who would later spearhead an international campaign to free her husband from jail.
Tensions with the apartheid regime were growing, and in 1960, 69 black people were shot dead by police in what became known as the Sharpeville massacre. With peaceful protests seeming to be ineffective, Mandela went abroad for military training and upon his return, formed the ANC’s military wing — the Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation).
As the group’s leader, he helped plan sabotage campaigns against the military and government, and organized funding and paramilitary training for a possible guerrilla war in case the sabotage tactics didn’t work.
When the ANC was outlawed in 1960, Mandela went underground. He hid during the day and worked at night, staying in different people’s homes and rarely seeing his family. He grew a beard and donned workman’s clothing, receiving the nickname the “Black Pimpernel” after the character in the “Scarlet Pimpernel” who evaded capture during the French Revolution.
Mandela had several brushes with authority during his clandestine period, and he tells of one such close call in his autobiography:
“One afternoon, when I was in Johannesburg posing as a chauffeur and wearing my long duster and cap, I was waiting on a corner to be picked up and I saw an African policeman striding deliberately toward me. I looked around to see if I had a place to run, but before I did, he smiled at me and surreptitiously gave me the thumbs-up ANC salute and was gone. Incidents like this happened many times, and I was reassured when I saw that we had the loyalty of many African policemen.”
After more than a year on the run, Mandela was caught and charged with sabotage and treason in June 1964. During the trial, he served as his own defense and used the stand to convey his ideas of democracy, freedom and equality. In the closing of his four-hour speech, he said:
“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’s cell on Robben Island. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.
In 1964, Mandela and eight other ANC leaders and members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe were sentenced to life in prison. For 18 years, Mandela was held on Robben Island before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland in 1982.
From the start, Mandela bucked authority by refusing to jog with the other inmates from the harbor where the ferry docked to the prison gates. And when a warden warned him that if he did not obey, he could be killed and no one on the mainland would be the wiser, Mandela’s retort, according to a Time magazine profile, was: “If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse.” The warden backed off.
Mandela recounted his prison experiences in “Long Walk to Freedom,” from the early wake-up calls to the food, which the authorities touted as a balanced diet. “It was indeed balanced — between the unpalatable and the inedible,” he wrote.
The meals consisted mostly of corn porridge with an occasional vegetable added and sometimes meat, which was mainly gristle, he recalled. For breakfast, the inmates received what was called coffee but was really ground up maize or corn, baked until black, and brewed with hot water.
Mandela would jog in the courtyard until breakfast arrived. After breakfast and inspection, the prisoners would hammer stones in the courtyard, and continue the work between lunch and dinner.
A freed Nelson Mandela on Feb. 11, 1990. Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images.
In all, Mandela spent 27 years in jail. When he was freed in 1990 at age 71, the extended separation from his family proved too much to repair.
He separated from his wife Winnie, and later, when she was convicted on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault, they divorced. Mandela acknowledged in his autobiography that the difficulties she faced while he was in prison rivaled his own; she raised their two daughters — Zenani and Zindzi — alone and had to deal with government persecutions. Their differences, he wrote, became more pronounced upon his return from Robben Island.
In 1990, PBS NewsHour co-founder Robert MacNeil interviewed Nelson Mandela in New York City.
“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,” he wrote.
Mandela was freed by the South African government after F.W. de Klerk became president. De Klerk was considered conservative and, in an unexpected move, said in light of the growing violence, he thought it would be best for the country to provide equal rights and opportunity for all inhabitants, essentially bringing an end to apartheid.
De Klerk made a series of good-faith moves, including lifting the ban on ANC and other organizations, freeing political prisoners and arranging for Mandela’s release.
Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk, right, display their Nobel prizes in Oslo on Dec. 9, 1993. Photo by Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images.
The two men shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and a year later, Mandela won the South African presidency by a landslide in the country’s first multi-racial elections.
The ANC won 252 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, according to the BBC.
Mandela performed the ceremonial duties of a leader, succeeding in keeping multinational corporations invested in the country. He entrusted his day-today business to his deputy Thabo Mbeki.
In 1997, Mandela handed over the presidency of the ANC to Mbeki and officially stepped down as president in 1999 after the ANC’s overwhelming victory in the national elections, the BBC reported.
Lynne Duke, author of “Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman’s African Journey,” told the NewsHour before her death in April that Mandela had a vision and was willing to do whatever it took to get there, “if it meant launching an armed struggle against the apartheid regime or pursuing a reconciliation agenda, which many South Africans got tired of and thought was excessive.
“He was able to put aside the passions of a man and rise to a level of leadership that made him perceived as almost superhuman. He answered the call of what was required going into a democratic era,” she said.
After retiring, Mandela continued to meet with world leaders, attend conferences and participate in peace negotiations with African countries. He also took on the fight against AIDS, despite many in South Africa regarding it as a taboo topic, and urged people to seek testing and treatment.
When his son, Makgatho, died of illness related to AIDS at age 54 on Jan. 6, 2005, Mandela made the cause of death known and urged families to talk about the disease.
Mandela is survived by his wife Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, whom he married in 1998, and three children.
- How Nelson Mandela Survived His Years in Isolated South African Jail
- Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke with President Mandela about South Africa’s past and future on the Oct. 6, 1994 NewsHour.
- Download a lesson plan for students and teachers about Mandela.
- Watch FRONTLINE’s “The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela” and see a timeline of Mandela’s life.
View more of NewsHour’s World coverage.