Nelson Mandela: From 'Second-Class Citizen' To World-Revered Leader

When Nelson Mandela died this week at age 95, he left a legacy as one of the most important leaders in modern history. Mandela rose from humble beginnings to lead South Africa out of its apartheid past, and helped to keep the nation from tumbling into civil war. But before becoming South Africa's first black president, he endured decades behind bars.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

A great man died two days ago. The world is still mourning. Journalists still haven't run out of things to say, not even close. Because while great men and women die regularly, there's something very, very different about this one.

Nelson Mandela already had the hopes of the world projected onto him when he was released from a South African prison in 1990. Almost impossible expectations that he should lead a bitterly divided country through a reconciliation. It seemed inevitable that he would disappoint. He didn't.

But it's not a simple story. We're going to draw out the complexity of the man and how the anti-apartheid movement became an international cause. But first, NPR's Jason Beaubien on Mandela's road to freedom.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Nelson Mandela was born in a country which viewed him as a second-class citizen. He died as one of the most respected statesmen in the world. From his childhood as a herd boy, he then went on to lead the African national congress' struggle against the racially oppressive apartheid regime of South Africa. For his efforts, he spent 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner.

In 1994, after Mandela was elected president in South Africa's first democratic elections, Archbishop Desmond Tutu shook with elation as he welcomed Mandela to a rally in Cape Town.

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DESMOND TUTU: One man inspires us all. One man inspires the whole world. Ladies and gentlemen, friends, fellow South Africans, I ask you, welcome our brand-new state president out of the box, Nelson Mandela.

BEAUBIEN: Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkeian, a region of rolling green hills near the southern tip of the African continent. In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela recalled his childhood as a simple, joyful time. He herded sheep and cows near his mother's huts and played barefoot with other boys. He was educated by British missionaries, got a law degree and eventually opened the first black law firm in Johannesburg.

In the 1940s, Mandela became active with the youth league of the African National Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Tapping into the culture of black resistance that was sweeping Johannesburg, Mandela helped organize strikes and demonstrations against the country's system of racial segregation.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Later, Mandela and other ANC leaders decided that freedom songs and civil disobedience would never topple the apartheid government. So they set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. As a result of Umkhonto we Sizwe's guerilla tactics, Mandela and seven other ANC leaders went on trial for sabotage in 1963. Against the advice of his lawyers, Mandela gave a four-hour closing statement. He used the speech in what's known as the Rivonia Trial to attack the apartheid system.

Despite facing the death penalty, he defiantly told the court that his actions had been in pursuit of the ideal of a free democratic society with equal opportunity for people of all races.

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NELSON MANDELA: 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.

BEAUBIEN: Mandela and his co-defendants escaped the gallows and were sentenced to life in prison. Mandela would spend the next 27 years behind bars, much of that time in the maximum security prison on Robben Island. In prison, he became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement and the focal point of international campaigns to do away with racial segregation in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa.

BEAUBIEN: One of Mandela's co-defendants at the Rivonia Trial was Ahmed Kathrada. Inside and later outside of prison, Kathrada was one of Mandela's closest confidants. And in an interview with Radio Diaries in 2004, Kathrada recalled Mandela playing a chess game for three days against the young medical student who'd recently been incarcerated on the island.

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AHMED KATHRADA: So they played the first day. And then when it came to lockup time, the game had not finished because Mandela calculates every move as he does in politics.

BEAUBIEN: Mandela convinced one of the guards to lock the chessboard away in an empty cell. At the end of the next day, the game was still not finished and the guard had to lock it away again.

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KATHRADA: In the end, this young chap just gave up. He said, you win. I can't carry on this way. But that's Mandela. It's a war of attrition, and he won.

BEAUBIEN: In Mandela's war of attrition against the apartheid government, South African President F. W. de Klerk made several offers to free him, but Mandela would only accept his unconditional release. In 1990, de Klerk did just that. Apartheid was on its final legs and Africa's largest economy was, for the first time in centuries, headed for black majority rule. The four years between Mandela's release from prison and South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, however, were tumultuous.

Elements within the white apartheid government were desperately trying to retain power. Violent clashes between supporters of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and Mandela's ANC left many foreign observers predicting that South Africa would disintegrate into a bloody civil war.

But Mandela's paternal, grandfatherly presence had a calming effect across the country. And in 1993, he and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize. After winning the 1994 election, Mandela reached out to South Africans of all races to help build an equitable and prosperous country.

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MANDELA: We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.

BEAUBIEN: Possibly his greatest political move was his decision to serve only one term as president. This was partly because at the age of 80, he was getting old, but also he said at the time he wanted to establish a tradition of contested democratic elections.

On election day in 2004 in the township of Soweto, black men and women stood in long lines to cast their ballots. Prior to 1994, none of these people had been allowed to vote. Mlongi Sitcholosa, who's a schoolteacher, credits one man with changing that: Nelson Mandela.

MLONGI SITCHOLOSA: That man saved this country. If it wasn't because of him, this country would have gone to flame. Now, because of his wisdom and his intelligent, he saved this country.

BEAUBIEN: In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela notes that his struggle against apartheid took a toll on his personal life. Toward the end of the book, Mandela says, quote: "To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it is a joy I had far too little of."

His first marriage to Evelyn Mase produced four children; three of whom died before him. Mandela's son, Makgatho, died of AIDS in 2005. His marriage to Winnie Madikizela Mandela survived his incarceration but disintegrated soon after he was released. He watched his daughters from this second marriage grow up through the glass of prison visitor's rooms.

But in his waning years, Mandela's home life finally improved. Rumors that he was in love started to surface in 1996. Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, was seen frequently in Mandela's presence. For his 80th birthday, the two got married in a tiny, private ceremony.

Friends say that Graca brought Mandela the joy that he felt he'd missed as he struggled for decades to bring freedom to South Africa. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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