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Mourning an icon: Nelson Mandela dead at 95

Monee Fields-White | 12/11/2013, 12:51 p.m.
Nelson Mandela breaks into a dance while on stage at the Hatch Shell during his 1990 visit to Boston. Photo by Don West

In 1982, he and the other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, a maximum-security prison. President P.W. Botha granted Mandela’s release in 1985, but only if he renounced armed struggle. Mandela rejected the offer. Despite the groundswell of support for Mandela’s release, negotiations seemed to stall while Botha remained in office.

Botha suffered a stroke in 1989 and was replaced that year by Frederik Willem de Klerk. Mandela’s release finally took place in February 1990, and de Klerk also lifted the ban on the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.

Mandela emerged from prison as committed and uncompromising as ever, urging other nations to continue their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. He also stated that the armed struggle would continue until blacks received the right to vote.

The triumphant president

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the ANC, with his colleague Tambo serving as national chairperson. Mandela also engaged in often strained negotiations with de Klerk on developing the country’s first multiracial elections. Violence erupted — the 1993 assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani was just one example — and Mandela addressed the nation, urging calm.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to dismantle apartheid. On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. The following month, Mandela, at 75, was inaugurated as the country’s first black president. De Klerk was his first deputy.

Mandela released his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” in 1994. He had secretly written most of it while incarcerated. In 1995 the Queen of England presented him with the Order of Merit.

While in office, Mandela focused on transitioning the government from apartheid rule to a black majority. He utilized the country’s love of rugby to promote reconciliation between blacks and whites, even urging blacks to support the much loathed national rugby team. In 1995, the country hosted the World Cup. Mandela’s initiative was the subject of the film “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

Mandela also worked to bolster the South African economy, which was near collapse. He established the Reconstruction and Development Plan, which funded initiatives to create jobs, fair housing and basic health care. In 1996 he signed into law a new South African Constitution, which guaranteed rights of minorities and freedom of expression as well as a solid centralized government.

The elder statesman

Mandela decided not to run for re-election in 1999 (ANC member Thabo Mbeki won election that year). Officially retired from politics, Mandela settled into his role as one of the world’s most revered elder statesmen, as well as an international civil rights icon. He actively raised funds for his foundation, which has built schools and clinics in South Africa’s rural areas. In his “retirement,” Mandela also went on to write several more books, including “No Easy Walk to Freedom,” “Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life” and “Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.”

Mandela was committed to fighting AIDS, a disease that killed his son in 2005. He spoke at the International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 and in Bangkok in 2004. He also spoke out against the Mbeki government’s controversial response to the AIDS crisis (Mbeki questioned the link between HIV and the disease).

In 2001, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2004, at age 85, Mandela retired from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu. He formed the Elders in 2007 to address global issues and promote peace. Members of the independent group of world leaders include Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt and Jimmy Carter.

Mandela’s 90th birthday in 2008 was the subject of international celebrations; one highlight was a concert in London’s Hyde Park. He also made a rare public appearance during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Among his numerous honors and awards, Mandela received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2002. In 2004, the city of Johannesburg awarded him the highest honor: the Freedom of the City.

Mandela was married three times: to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, from 1944 to 1957, with whom he had two sons and two daughters; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, from 1958 to1996, with whom he had two daughters; and Graça Machel, whom he married in 1998.

The Root