In this Dec. 7, 2005, file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela, 87, is in a jovial mood at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, where he met with the winner and runner-up of the local “Idols” competition.
He went from prison to power, changing his native South Africa in a way few of its citizens would have ever thought possible when he was incarcerated in its jail cells for 27 years.
That story came to a peaceful end Thursday, as South African president Jacob Zuma said in a televised address that Mandela passed away at home surrounded by family.
“Although we knew this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of profound and enduring loss,” Zuma said. “His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world.”
Mandela made the fight against apartheid – South Africa’s official policy of discrimination against all non-white people – his life’s work, its culmination reached shortly after Mandela’s release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990. In national elections four years later, Mandela voted for the first time and was elected the president of South Africa. He served until 1999.
Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela is born July 18, 1918 in a small village in the Transkei region of South Africa, one of 13 children. A school teacher gave him the English name of Nelson.
Mandela’s tribal clan was a part of the royal family of Thembu. Mandela is still a boy when his father dies and he becomes a ward of the Thembu, raised in a loving and disciplined environment by the Thembu chief and his wife. Exhibiting an early will of his own, the 22-year-old Mandela renounces the opportunity to become chief of the Thembu, partly to avoid an arranged marriage.
In the early 1940s, after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, Mandela travels to Johannesburg to live with his mother, taking a job as a clerk at a law firm. He also joins the African National Congress. The ANC was formed in 1912 with a goal of ending white domination in South Africa and creating a nation of many races.
Mandela, believing the ANC leadership too staid, forms an ANC Youth League, seeking a more active approach. In 1947, Mandela becomes the secretary of the ANC Youth League and in 1951 its president.
As he becomes more involved in the ANC, Mandela travels across South Africa, sometimes in disguise, urging ordinary people to engage peacefully in mass disobedience to discriminatory practices. He is arrested in July of 1952 and charged with violating the Suppression of Communism Act.
He’s found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison but the penalty is suspended for two years. He is also confined to Johannesburg for six months, using the time to open a law practice, taking on several cases involving blacks being persecuted under apartheid laws. He is further banned from attending any ANC meetings, bans that extended off and on for the next nine years.
Mandela, by now the deputy president of the ANC, goes incognito at the Congress of the People in June, 1955, a session that adopted the Freedom Charter, a call for the end of racial oppression and discrimination. In response, the South African government arrests Mandela and 150 other members of the ANC for high treason. The trial drags on for years but Mandela and 29 others are eventually acquitted in March of 1961.
Mandela gradually accepts the necessity for violence in the battle against apartheid. That thinking accelerates when 69 anti-apartheid protestors are killed and another 180 wounded by police on March 21, 1960 in what becomes known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
The ANC responds by endorsing an “armed struggle.” Mandela goes underground, forming the Umkhonto we Sizwe or The Spear of the Nation. He escapes South Africa, taking his crusade to other African nations, Europe and the Middle East, where he lectures, studies and builds support for the ANC.
He returns to South Africa in August of 1962, is arrested, convicted and sentenced to five years in a prison on Robben Island, about 11 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. While serving this sentence, Mandela is also brought to trial for sabotage and trying to violently overthrow the government. He is convicted and given a life sentence.
Part of Mandela’s statement to the court became the rallying cry for the anti-apartheid movement: “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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela spends 18 years on Robben Island, which has now become a museum. In March of 1982, Mandela, now 64, is transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, in a suburb of Cape Town.
In 1985, Mandela is hospitalized for prostate surgery and afterward, in a telling move, he is returned to a private cell for easier access by government officials. By July of 1986, secret talks are underway between Mandela and the government of Prime Minister P.W. Botha, regarding Mandela’s release and apartheid policy. Discussions continue under Botha’s successor, F.W. de Klerk in 1989.
In a dramatic speech to the South African parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, de Klerk lifts the bans against the ANC. Mandela is released from Victor Verster prison in Paarl, north of Cape Town, nine days later. In August, the government and the ANC sign the Pretoria Minute, in which both sides agree to end their armed fight.
Sporadic violence threatens to unspool negotiations for a new South Africa but Mandela and de Klerk reach a Record of Understanding in 1992, a deal for formal investigations into police actions and the basis for establishing a new constitution. In December of 1993, Mandela and de Klerk share the Nobel Peace Prize.
As president, Mandela oversees the advent of a new constitution, introduced in 1996. He works to improve the living standard for black South Africans and seeks a peaceful resolution with whites. He also establishes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, to investigate human rights violations committed during the apartheid years. Some saw it as a witch hunt, others as a cleansing.
In retirement, Mandela lives in Johannesburg, making occasional appearances at concerts or rallies. He is revered by South Africans as something of a founding father. He has made it known that when he dies, he would like to be buried near his boyhood home.