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Tears for Madiba
JOHANNESBURG—Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness. South Africa’s first black president spent nearly one-third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, the system of white racist rule that he described as evil, yet he sought to win over its defeated guardians in a relatively peaceful transition of power that inspired the world.
As head of state, the former boxer, lawyer and inmate lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration, sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and travelled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister at the time he was sent to prison who was also the architect of white rule.
It was this generosity of spirit that made Mandela, nicknamed by his countrymen Madiba, who died yesterday at the age of 95, a global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation in a world often jarred by conflict and division.
Mandela’s stature as a fighter against white racist rule and seeker of peace with his enemies was on a par with that of other men he admired: American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings.
Mandela’s death deprived the world of one of the great figures of modern history and set the stage for days of mourning and reflection about a colossus of the 20th century who projected astonishing grace, resolve and good humour. South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late yesterday, saying: “We’ve lost our greatest son.”
Counting himself among the millions influenced by Nelson Mandela, United States President Barack Obama also mourned the death of the anti-apartheid icon with whom he shares the distinction of being his nation’s first black president. “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages,” Obama said in a sombre appearance at the White House.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” he continued. “And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
At times, Mandela embraced his iconic status, appearing before a rapturous crowd in London’s Wembley Stadium soon after his 1990 release from jail. 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 In an unpublished manuscript, written while in prison, Mandela acknowledged that leaders of the anti-apartheid movement dominated the spotlight but said they were “only part of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 secured near-mythical status in his country and beyond. Last year, the South African central bank released new banknotes 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. 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.
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 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 71 — 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 colourful shirts made him a globally known figure.
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.
His first wife, nurse Evelyn Mase, bore him four children. A daughter died in infancy, a son was killed in a car crash in 1970 and another son died of AIDS in 2005. The couple divorced in 1957 and Evelyn died in 2004. With apartheid vanquished, Mandela turned to peace-making efforts in other parts of Africa and the world and eventually to fighting AIDS, publicly acknowledging that his own son, Makgatho, had died of the disease.
Mandela’s final years were marked by frequent hospitalisations as he struggled with respiratory problems that had bothered him since he contracted tuberculosis in prison. He stayed in his rural home in Qunu in Eastern Cape province, where Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, visited him in 2012 but then moved full-time to his home in Johannesburg so he could be close to medical care in Pretoria, the capital.
He is survived by Machel; his daughter Makaziwe by his first marriage, and daughters Zindzi and Zenani by his second.
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