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Nelson Mandela, South Africa's freedom fighter, dies at age 95

N elson 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.

President Jacob Zuma, dressed in black, announced the news of Mandela's death Thursday night on television, saying the man known affectionately by his clan name "Madiba" had died peacefully around 8:50 p.m. in the company of his family.

"Our nation has lost its greatest son,'' Zuma said. ''Our people have lost a father."

Mandela had long declared he wanted a quiet exit, but the time he spent in a Pretoria hospital in recent months was a clamor of quarreling family, hungry news media, spotlight-seeking politicians and a national outpouring of affection and loss. Mandela will be buried, according to his wishes, in the village of Qunu, where he grew up.

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. When his first term of office was up, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor.

At times, Mandela embraced his iconic status, appearing before a rapturous crowd in London's Wembley Stadium soon after his 1990 release from prison. Sometimes, he sought to downplay it, uneasy about the perils of being put on a pedestal. In an unpublished manuscript, written while in prison, Mandela acknowledged that leaders of the anti-apartheid movement dominated the spotlight but said they were "only part of the story," and every activist was "like a brick which makes up our organization."

He 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 bank notes 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.

In 2010, Mandela waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium at the closing ceremony of the World Cup, whose staging in South Africa allowed the country, and the continent, to shine internationally. It was the last public appearance for the former president and prisoner, who smiled broadly and was bundled up against the cold.

One of the most memorable of his gestures toward racial harmony was the day in 1995 when he strode onto the field before the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg, and then again after the game, when he congratulated the home team for its victory over a tough New Zealand team. Mandela wore South African colors and the overwhelmingly white crowd of 63,000 was on its feet, chanting "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"

It was typical of Mandela to march headlong into a bastion of white Afrikanerdom — in this case the temple of South African rugby — and make its followers feel they belonged in the new South Africa.

The moment was portrayed in Invictus, Clint Eastwood's movie telling the story of South Africa's transformation through the prism of sport.

It was a moment half a century in the making. 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.

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 then 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 graying hair, raspy voice and colorful shirts made him a globally known figure.

Life, however, imposed new challenges on Mandela.

South Africa's white rulers had portrayed him as the spearhead of a communist revolution and insisted that black majority rule would usher in bloody chaos. Thousands died in factional fighting in the run-up to democratic elections in 1994, and Mandela accused the government of collusion in the bloodshed. But voting day, when long lines of voters waited patiently to cast ballots, passed peacefully, as did Mandela's inauguration as president

"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," the new president said. "Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa! Thank you."

Mandela also stood hand on heart, saluted by white generals as he sang along to two anthems, now one: the apartheid-era Afrikaans Die Stem, (The Voice) and the African Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa).

Since apartheid ended, South Africa has held four parliamentary elections and elected three presidents, always peacefully, setting an example on a continent where democracy is still new and fragile. However, corruption scandals and other missteps under the ruling African National Congress, the liberation group once led by Mandela, have undercut some of the early promise.

Zuma periodically observes that the South African white minority is far wealthier than the black majority, an imbalance that he regards as a vestige of the apartheid system that bestowed most economic benefits on whites.

When Mandela came to power, black South Africans anticipated quick fixes after being denied proper housing, schools and health care under apartheid. The new government, however, embraced free-market policies to keep white-dominated big business on its side and attract foreign investment. The policy averted the kind of economic deterioration that occurred in Zimbabwe after independence; South Africa, though, has one of the world's biggest gaps between rich and poor.

Perceived successes during Mandela's tenure include the introduction of a constitution with robust protections for individual rights, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he established with fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It allowed human rights offenders of all races to admit their crimes publicly in return for lenient treatment.

To the disappointment of many South Africans, he increasingly left the governing to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who won the next presidential election and took over when Mandela's term ended in 1999.

"I must step down while there are one or two people who admire me," Mandela joked at the time. When he retired, he said he was going to stand on a street with a sign that said: "Unemployed, no job. New wife and large family to support."

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's freedom fighter, dies at age 95 12/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 6, 2013 12:12am]
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