Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-apartheid leader imprisoned for decades before becoming South Africa’s first black president and an international symbol of freedom, has died at 95. He had long been battling complications from a respiratory infection.
Mandela was at the center of sweeping changes across South Africa during a tumultuous period that saw the former Dutch and English colony transition from apartheid‚ a racist class structure in place since the early 1900s that limited the rights of black South Africans and codified rule by the white Afrikaner minority‚ into an inclusive democracy that enfranchised millions of non-whites who were deprived even of their citizenship under the repressive system.
His opposition to apartheid came with a cost: Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner for his association with the African National Congress, a black-rights group that sometimes resorted to violence in resisting the white government. Denounced as a terrorist and communist sympathizer, Mandela spent close to two decades of his internment in a dank concrete cell on Robben Island, where the glare of the sun during his work shifts in a lime quarry permanently damaged his eyesight. An international campaign resulted in his release from prison on February 11th, 1990. Negotiations soon followed with South African President F.W. de Klerk that led to the dismantling of apartheid four years later, when South Africa held a multi-racial general election that elevated Mandela to the presidency. In 1993, he and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
As president, Mandela sought to repair rifts among South Africa’s factions and ethnicities, and he enacted a new constitution, appointed a diverse cabinet and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by the government and the ANC. He declined to run for a second five-year term, and left the presidency in 1999.
“Mandela shows what was possible when a priority is placed on human dignity, respect for law, that all people are treated equally,” President Barack Obama said while visiting South Africa over the summer. “And what Nelson Mandela also stood for is that the well-being of the country is more important than the interests of any one person. George Washington is admired because after two terms he said enough, I’m going back to being a citizen. There were no term limits, but he said I’m a citizen. I served my time. And it’s time for the next person, because that’s what democracy is about. And Mandela similarly was able to recognize that, despite how revered he was, that part of this transition process was greater than one person.”
Born to illiterate parents with distant connections to the ruling family in one of South Africa’s indigenous territories (his father was a local chief who was stripped of his position by the colonial authorities), Mandela spent his early childhood tending cattle and attending a local Methodist mission school, which instilled in him a lifelong love of learning. His political awakening began when he developed an interest in his African heritage while attending a college for black students, and deepened while he studied law in the Forties, when he joined the ANC.
Mandela helped form, and then rose through the ranks of, the ANC’s Youth League, which elected him national president in 1950. Inspired by Gandhi, he initially advocated nonviolent resistance before adopting a more militant outlook in the mid-Fifties as civil disobedience proved ineffective. He was first arrested in 1952 as part of a government crackdown on suspected communists, and he spent the next 12 years in and out of custody as he and the ANC worked to undermine apartheid. He was convicted in 1964 on charges of conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and sentenced to life in prison.
His imprisonment prompted an international outcry, and apartheid made South Africa the subject of economic sanctions and cultural boycotts in the Eighties that helped secure Mandela’s release and end apartheid.
After he left the presidency, Mandela established the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS and advocate for rural development and the construction of schools. He became a vocal critic of the U.S. and Britain for their 2003 invasion of Iraq, and though he largely retired from the public eye in 2004, Mandela helped bring the World Cup to South Africa in 2010.
Mandela is survived by his third wife, Graça Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday, and his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, along with three children, 16 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.