[nydailynews.com] – Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa who led the fight against apartheid and then pushed for reconciliation as the nation’s first black president, died Thursday. He was 95.
A revolutionary who served 27 years in prison for taking up arms against his country’s oppressive white government, Mandela became the face of forgiveness as he embraced his former captors and urged sworn enemies to forge a “rainbow” nation.
By force of his generous and winning personality, Mandela managed to do what many skeptics deemed impossible: unite and inspire a bitterly divided country. And in so doing, Mandela became a global icon whose popularity eclipsed racial and geographic boundaries. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, sharing the prize with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last president during the era of state-sanctioned racial segregation.
He gained the respect of leaders around the globe.
“To so many of us, he was more than just a man – he was a symbol of the struggle for justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa and around the globe,” President Obama wrote in a foreword to Mandela’s book “Conversations With Myself.”
“His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress.”
Mandela, who once headed the military wing of the African National Congress, was accused along with several cohorts of trying to overthrow the government. Charged with high treason and sabotage, he defended himself in a powerful 1964 speech titled, “I Am Prepared to Die.”
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people,” he said. “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 and eight others were sentenced to life in prison.
For the next 27 years, Mandela was inmate 46664. He served 18 of those years on Robben Island, where he did hard labor in a lime quarry and contracted the tuberculosis that would dog him for the rest of his life.
Mandela was allowed one letter every six months and badly missed his second wife, Winnie, and their two daughters. “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.”
Through his letters to the outside world, Mandela became the world’s most famous political prisoner. “Free Nelson Mandela” became a global rallying cry as international pressure mounted on the South African government to release him and scrap its racist policies.
By the late 1980s, South Africa had become an international pariah and decided it had had enough. He was released on Feb. 11, 1990.
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” he said after emerging from custody. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” And with those words, the dismantling of apartheid was underway.
Mandela made his first visit to the U.S. in June 1990, about four months after he was released from prison. He kicked off an eight-city tour, landing first at Kennedy Airport. About 1 million people saw the South African leader as his 40-vehicle motorcade rolled through the city under the watchful eyes of 12,000 cops.
The South African leader made stops in the historically black Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York. He was celebrated on June 20, 1990, with a ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes. Then 200,000 people attended a City Hall ceremony honoring Mandela.
“Apartheid is doomed,” he said. “South Africa will be free.”
The next day about 80,000 people cheered him on in Harlem. And 50,000 people came to Yankee Stadium to see him speak. “You know who I am,” he said after then-Mayor David Dinkins put a team cap and jacket on Mandela. “I am a Yankee.”
Mandela, battling an infection that had spread to his weakened lungs, was admitted June 8 to a Pretoria hospital, marking the fourth time since December he had been hospitalized. He had beaten back the illness in December, when he also had some gallstones removed.
At the time of his final hospitalization, however, President Jacob Zuma warned his countrymen that Mandela’s health had taken a “downturn.” “We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family,” Zuma said in the statement, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
But prayers weren’t enough and Mandela passed at TK.
The South African government is expected to hold a state funeral for Mandela that will draw leaders from around the world. Once more, the focus will be on a country that bears its departed leader’s imprint – but remains a work in progress after decades of racial oppression. Born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, to a family of tribal chiefs, Mandela was the first member of his family to attend school.
It was there a white teacher dubbed him “Nelson,” and the name stuck with him for life.
Mandela left Fort Hare University to escape an arranged marriage and went to Johannesburg, where he studied law and married his first wife, Evelyn Mase. By the 1940s, Mandela was an up-and-coming lawyer with a firm in downtown Johannesburg.
“I wore smart suits; I drove a colossal Oldsmobile,” he wrote in his autobiography.
But in 1948, the Nationalist Party came to power and instituted a new policy called apartheid that cleaved the country along racial lines. The party stripped the majority black population of citizenship. It segregated housing, education, medical care and other public services.
Blacks like Mandela became third-class citizens in their own country – after whites and mixed-race South Africans.
In response, the black African National Congress party began a defiant program of boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. Mandela joined the cause and became a deputy president of the ANC in 1952 – and the target of frequent arrests.
After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when white police opened fire on a peaceful crowd of black demonstrators killing 69, a frustrated Mandela decided it was time to meet violence with violence.
Mandela became the leader of the ANC’s armed wing called “Umkhonto we Sizwe” or “The Spear of the Nation” and coordinated sabotage campaigns against government targets. He was appointed the group’s commander-in-chief and secretly sent to Morocco and Ethiopia in 1962 to receive military training. He was arrested when he returned to South Africa in August 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country without a passport and inciting a strike. In 1963, he and eight ANC members were tried in what became known as “the Rivonia Trial” of plotting to overthrow the government.
He was accused of carrying out 235 separate acts of sabotage in an 18-month stretch that began in June 1961 with the bombing of an electrical sub-station.
Standing in the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, Mandela famously opened his defense with the defiant “I am Prepared to Die” speech. On June 11, 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1994, four years after Mandela was released, South Africa held its first free elections and the former enemy of the state became president of the country that once persecuted him.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” President Mandela said. For five years, Mandela served as president, and by sheer force of personality, steered South Africa away from civil war and toward democracy.
Despite the many grievances the black majority had against their white oppressors, Mandela rejected retribution and preached reconciliation.
He even managed to find compassion for his jailers.
“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,” he wrote. “The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
Mandela invited his prison guards to his inauguration, took tea with the widows of the racist presidents who kept him behind bars and enthusiastically backed the white Afrikaner Springbok team in their 1995 Rugby World Cup victory.
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” he said.
Mandela served just one term as president, retiring in 1999. But his influence continued to be felt as South Africa moved slowly – and sometimes painfully – from being a country where the few persecuted the many to one where all South Africans had at least a shot at a better life.
Mandela didn’t retreat from the world stage, pushing for help for AIDS victims and warning about the widening worldwide gap between the rich and poor.
He was a harsh critic of the Iraq war, blasting then-President George W. Bush as “a President who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and who wanted “to plunge the world into a holocaust.”
Bush awarded Mandela the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
Mandela also criticized the Israelis for their treatment of the Palestinians. And he was not afraid to rip despotic African leaders like Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, for oppressing their own people.
But starting in 2004, Mandela rarely ventured from his home in suburban Johannesburg, as his health worsened and he became increasingly frail.
One of Mandela’s last public appearances was perhaps one of his most moving.
With his third wife, Graca Machel, by his side, Mandela gave a brief wave at the closing ceremonies of the hugely successful 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in Johannesburg.
It was a sign of just how far South Africa had come – from the man who led his nation there.