Anti-apartheid icon and first black South African President Nelson Mandela, 95, died today after battling a lung condition that began with his contraction of tuberculosis during his years in prison from 1962 to 1990.
South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late Thursday, saying, “We've lost our greatest son.”
Mandela was born July 18, 1918, to the Madiba clan on the eastern Cape of South Africa. His father named him “Rolihlahla,” colloquially meaning “troublemaker.” On his first day of school, Mandela’s teacher gave him the Christian name “Nelson.” The world has called him Nelson Mandela ever since. Many in South Africa affectionately call him “Tata,” meaning “father,” or “Khulu,” which means “the Great One.”
In the unpublished autobiographical manuscript he wrote in prison, Mandela described his childhood of singing, dancing, looking after sheep and calves with other boys, and listening to his mother and aunts relay legends: “The type of life I led at my home, my experiences in the veld where we worked and played together in groups, introduced me at an early age to the ideas of collective effort.”
Mandela later told writer Richard Stengel, “If I had stayed at home I would have been a respected chief today, you know? And I would have had a big stomach, and a lot of cattle and sheep.”
Instead, Mandela received the best education available to a black South African of his day. He pursued law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, which exposed him to ideas from many groups, as well as discrimination by the ruling white minority.
After qualifying as a lawyer, Mandela campaigned against racial segregation and eventually became vice president of the African National Congress (ANC).
Patrick Henry College history professor Robert Spinney summarized Mandela’s early politics: “As a young man … [Mandela] was a militant and violent protester against the all-white apartheid regime. He had links to leftists, socialists, and communists. The debate, however, is over whether he was truly a leftist/Marxist or just a desperate apartheid victim glad to find allies anywhere he could.”
As resistance to apartheid grew, South African authorities charged him with attempting to overthrow the government violently and sentenced him to life in prison on Robben Island, where he labored in a stone quarry. But during Mandela’s imprisonment an international campaign to free him grew and grew, eventually exerting so much anti-apartheid pressure that white South African President F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990 and lifted a ban of the ANC.
De Klerk and Mandela jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and Mandela became South Africa’s president in 1994. The question then was: Would Mandela push for black domination and revenge or racial harmony and equal opportunity? Spinney noted that Mandela, post-prison, was a peacemaker: “Whatever his youthful allegiances, post-1990 he prevented blacks from going violent. He was not vindictive; he sought and obtained reconciliation with whites. The people who really benefited from Nelson Mandela’s leadership were white South Africans. Rather than being driven out of South Africa by justifiably angry blacks, they enjoyed legal protection.”
Mandela stepped down from the presidency after only one term, but not before reconciling the separated nation. The name Mandela received when he was initiated into manhood at 16 was “Dalibhunga,” meaning “convenor of the dialogue,” which proved prophetic. “You must fight the battle for dignity,” Mandela told Oprah Winfrey in 2000.
Mandela, married three times, had six children, four stepchildren, and 17 grandchildren.