Nelson Mandela dies; former president of South Africa was 95
View Photo Gallery — Nelson Mandela dies at age 95: In an extraordinary life that spanned the rural hills where he was groomed for tribal leadership, anti-apartheid activism, guerrilla warfare, 27 years of political imprisonment and, ultimately, the South African presidency, Nelson Mandela held a unique leadership cachet that engendered respect and awe in capitals around the globe.
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Lynne Duke, Published: December 5
The death was announced in a televised address by South African President Jacob Zuma, who noted, “We’ve lost our greatest son.” No cause was provided.
And to a world roiled by war, poverty and oppression, Mr. Mandela became its conscience, fighting to overcome some of its most vexing problems. He was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 27 years in prison as part of his lifelong struggle against racial oppression.
Throughout this moral and political fight, Mr. Mandela evoked a steely resolve, discipline and quiet dignity, coupled with a trademark big, charismatic smile. He ultimately carried them into office as South Africa’s first black president.
His victory capped decades of epic struggle by the African National Congress and other liberation groups against South Africa’s brutal white rulers, first under British colonialism and then under a white-run system called “apartheid,” or racial separation.
On the day of his inauguration — May 10, 1994 — Mr. Mandela stood at the podium near South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk. A year earlier, they had shared the Nobel Prize for what the Nobel committee called “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa.”
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation,” Mr. Mandela, then 75, declared. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. . . the sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.”
Only a few years before, the 20th century’s most celebrated political prisoner had been dubbed a terrorist by the conservative governments in the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, respectively.
In the decades after Mr. Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, many South Africans of all races referred to him reverentially as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name. Countless others called him Tata, which means father in the Xhosa language.
For all his achievements, Mr. Mandela will also be remembered as slow to react to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began sweeping South Africa on his watch. It was not until 1998, four years into his presidency, that he directly addressed the South African public about the disease. Later, he would acknowledge that he had not initially recognized the severity of the epidemic.
After he left office in 1999, Mr. Mandela devoted substantial energy and resources, both personally and through his Nelson Mandela Foundation, to raising awareness of the epidemic. In 2002, he publicly criticized his successor, Thabo Mbeki, for delays in implementing a plan to fight HIV/AIDS.
Timeline: The life of Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial speech
Mr. Mandela’s years as president also were characterized by the public and political drama of his estrangement from his wife, Winnie. Separated in 1992, the pair divorced in 1996 after legal proceedings in which the usually private Mr. Mandela described himself in open court as “the loneliest man.”
The Afrikaners, descendants of 17th-century Dutch and French settlers, were especially traumatized by the transition to black rule, and their control of the military posed a potential threat to the young democracy in the early years of Mr. Mandela’s presidency.
Although institutional policies were put in place to deal with white fears — such as a sunset clause allowing white civil servants and soldiers to stay in their jobs as long as they wanted — Mr. Mandela also used his powers of persuasion to disarm opponents, defuse threats and charm detractors.
Under Mr. Mandela’s leadership, South Africa slowly began expunging racism from its legal canon, governmental institutions and school textbooks. A Constitutional Court was inaugurated in 1995 as the highest court in the land. Among its early rulings was the abolition of the death penalty.
In 1996, Parliament approved a new national constitution, including a bill of rights guaranteeing protections that most South Africans had never imagined. For instance, South Africa was the first nation in the world to enshrine the protection of the rights of gay people in its constitution.
That same year, Mr. Mandela launched the country’s Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Rather than Nuremberg-style trials, Mr. Mandela’s government fostered truth-telling and amnesty. On one hand, that meant killers who confessed would not be prosecuted. But it helped ensure that the seeds of more racial hatred would not be planted.
Mr. Mandela sought to bridge the lingering divides between blacks and whites in other ways, too. When South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he encouraged blacks to support the Springboks, the widely hated national rugby team that was seen by many blacks as a totem of white rule.
When the Springboks won a riveting final over New Zealand, Mr. Mandela wore a Springbok shirt and presented the trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar. The gesture was widely viewed as a major step toward racial reconciliation.
For all his strengths and bottomless energy, Mr. Mandela faced a seemingly impossible task as president: In a nation where millions of people lived in shacks, where nonwhites had been purposefully impoverished and undereducated, he had to meet the expectations and hopes of the teeming masses who had propelled him to high office.