Mandela’s strength and influence made him a hero to all, but he also lived with regrets

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEDecember 8, 2013 

Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, had long said that he wanted a quiet exit.

When he died Thursday at age 95, it was after a long period that was anything but quiet. The time Mandela spent in a Pretoria hospital this year was a clamor of quarreling family, hungry news media, spotlight-seeking politicians and a national outpouring of affection and loss.

And the impact this one man made pretty much ensured that he could not just slip away, out of reach of the world’s attention.

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. And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor.

The question most often asked about Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.

The government he formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration. Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F. W. de Klerk.

And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.

The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.

When the question was put to Mandela in an interview for his obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.

In his five years as president, Mandela, though still a sainted figure abroad, lost some luster at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government.

Some blacks — including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s former wife, who cultivated a following among the most disaffected blacks — complained that he had moved too slowly to narrow the vast gulf between the impoverished black majority and the more prosperous white minority. Some whites said he failed to control crime, corruption and cronyism.

Undoubtedly Mandela had become less attentive to the details of governing, turning over the daily responsibilities to the deputy who would succeed him in 1999, Thabo Mbeki. But few among his countrymen doubted that without his patriarchal authority and political shrewdness, South Africa might well have descended into civil war long before it reached its imperfect state of democracy.

After leaving the presidency, Mandela brought that moral stature to bear elsewhere around the continent, as a peace broker and champion of greater outside investment.

RISE OF A ‘TROUBLEMAKER’

Mandela was deep into a life prison term when he caught the notice of the world as a symbol of the opposition to apartheid, literally “apartness” in the Afrikaans language — a system of racial gerrymandering that stripped blacks of their citizenship and relegated them to reservation-style “homelands” and townships.

Around 1980, exiled leaders of the foremost anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress, decided that this eloquent lawyer was the perfect hero to humanize their campaign against the system that denied 80 percent of South Africans any voice in their own affairs. Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was.

In South Africa, though, and among those who followed the country’s affairs more closely, Nelson Mandela was already a name to reckon with.

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei, a former British protectorate in the south. His given name, he enjoyed pointing out, translates colloquially as “troublemaker.”

He received his more familiar English name from a teacher when he began school at age 7. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief of the Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.

“The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” said Ahmed Kathrada, an activist who shared a prison cellblock with Mandela. “That always gave him a strength.”

JOINING A MOVEMENT

The enlarging of Mandela’s outlook began at Methodist missionary schools and the University College of Fort Hare, then the only residential college for blacks in South Africa. Mandela said later that he had entered the university still thinking of himself as a Xhosa first and foremost, but left with a broader African perspective.

Studying law at Fort Hare, he fell in with Oliver Tambo, another leader-to-be of the liberation movement. On returning to his home village, he learned that his family had chosen a bride for him. Finding the woman unappealing, he ran away to the black metropolis of Soweto.

There he was directed to Walter Sisulu, who ran a real estate business and was in the African National Congress. Sisulu looked upon the tall young man with his aristocratic bearing and confident gaze and, he recalled in an interview, decided that his prayers had been answered.

Mandela soon impressed the activists with his ability to win over doubters.

“His starting point is that ‘I am going to persuade this person no matter what,’ ” Sisulu said. “That is his gift. He will go to anybody, anywhere, with that confidence.”

Though he never completed his law degree, Mandela opened the first black law partnership in South Africa with Tambo. Impatient with the seeming impotence of their elders in the African National Congress, Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and other militants organized the ANC Youth League and engineered a generational takeover.

During his years as a young lawyer in Soweto, Mandela married a nurse, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, and they had four children. But the demands of his politics kept him from his family. The marriage grew cold and ended with abruptness.

“He said, ‘Evelyn, I feel that I have no love for you anymore,’ ” his first wife said in an interview for a documentary film. “ ‘I’ll give you the children and the house.’ ”

Not long afterward, a friend introduced him to Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, a stunning and strong-willed medical social worker 16 years his junior. Mandela was smitten. He married her in 1958, while he and other activists were in the midst of a marathon trial on treason charges.

A LEGEND GROWS

In 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.

It was an abrupt shift for a man who, not many weeks earlier, had proclaimed nonviolence an inviolable principle of the ANC. He later explained that forswearing violence “was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” Mandela became the first commander of a motley liberation army, called Spear of the Nation.

South Africa’s rulers were determined to put Mandela and his comrades out of action. In 1963, Mandela and eight other ANC leaders were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state — capital crimes. It was called the Rivonia trial, for the name of the farm where the defendants had conspired.

At Mandela’s suggestion, the defendants, certain of conviction, set out to turn the trial into a moral drama that would vindicate them in the court of world opinion. They admitted that they had engaged in sabotage and tried to lay out a political justification for these acts.

The four-hour speech with which Mandela opened the defense’s case was one of the most eloquent of his life.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The judge acquitted one person and sentenced Mandela and the others to life.

EDUCATION IN PRISON

Mandela was 44 when he was manacled and put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison. He was 71 when he was released.

Robben Island had over the centuries been a naval garrison, a mental hospital and a leper colony, but it was most famously a prison. For Mandela and others, Robben Island was a university. He honed his skills as a leader, negotiator and proselytizer. Factions among the prisoners and white administrators found his charm and iron will irresistible.

Perhaps because Mandela was so revered, he was singled out for gratuitous cruelties by the authorities. Friends say his experiences steeled his self-control and made him, more than ever, a man who buried his emotions deep.

Still, Mandela said prison tempered any desire for vengeance by exposing him to sympathetic white guards, and to moderates within the National Party government who approached him in hopes of opening a dialogue. Above all, prison taught him to be a master negotiator.

Mandela’s decision to begin negotiations with the white government was one of the most momentous of his life, and he made it without consulting his comrades, knowing full well that they would resist. In the last months of his imprisonment, he was relocated to Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town, where he lived in a warden’s bungalow.

From the moment they learned of the talks, Mandela’s allies in the ANC were suspicious. Mandela explained to them his view that the enemy was morally and politically defeated, with nothing left but the army, the country ungovernable. His strategy, he said, was to give the white rulers every chance to retreat in an orderly way.

A TROUBLED MARRIAGE

In February 1990, Mandela finally walked out of prison. Over the next four years, he would be embroiled in a laborious negotiation, not only with the white government, but also with his own fractious alliance. While Mandela languished in prison, a campaign of civil disobedience was underway. No one participated more enthusiastically than Winnie Mandela.

By the time of her husband’s imprisonment, the Mandelas had produced two daughters but had little time to enjoy a domestic life. For most of their marriage they saw each other through the thick glass partition of the prison visiting room. She was tormented by the police, jailed and banished with her children to a remote Afrikaner town, Brandfort, where she challenged her captors at every turn.

By the time she was released into the tumult of Soweto in 1984, she had become a firebrand. She surrounded herself with young thugs who terrorized, kidnapped and killed blacks she deemed hostile to the cause.

Friends said Mandela’s choice of his cause over his family often filled him with remorse — so much so that he refused to criticize Winnie Mandela.

As president, he bowed to her popularity by appointing her deputy minister of arts, a position in which she became entangled in financial scandals. In 1995, Mandela filed for divorce.

Mandela later fell publicly in love with Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique and an activist in her own right. They married on Mandela’s 80th birthday.

LIMITATIONS

Two years after Mandela’s release from prison, black and white leaders met in a convention center on the outskirts of Johannesburg for negotiations that would lead, fitfully, to an end of white rule. While out in the country extremists on both sides used violence to try to tilt the outcome their way, Mandela and the white president, de Klerk, argued and maneuvered toward a peaceful transfer of power.

Eventually, though, Mandela and his negotiating team found their way to the grand bargain that assured free elections in exchange for promising opposition parties a share of power and a guarantee that whites would not be subjected to reprisals.

During the elections in April 1994, voters lined up in some places for miles. The African National Congress won 62 percent of the vote, earning 252 of the 400 seats in Parliament’s National Assembly and ensuring that Mandela, as party leader, would be named president.

Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10, and he accepted office with a speech of shared patriotism.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” he declared.

As president, Mandela exhibited a genius for the grand gesture of reconciliation. There was a limit, though, to how much Mandela — by exhortation, by symbolism, by appeals to the better natures of his constituents — could paper over the gulf between white privilege and black privation. In his term, he made only modest progress in fulfilling the goals he had set for housing, education and jobs.

The South African journalist Mark Gevisser, in his 2007 biography of Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, wrote: “The overriding legacy of the Mandela presidency ... is a country where the rule of law was entrenched in an unassailable Bill of Rights, and where the predictions of racial and ethnic conflict did not come true. These feats, alone, guarantee Mandela his sanctity. But he was a far better liberator and nation-builder than he was a governor.”

As a former president, Mandela lent his charisma to a variety of causes on the African continent, joining peace talks in several wars and assisting his wife, Graca, in raising money for children’s aid organizations.

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