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South African democracy icon Nelson Mandela dies

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader of his country’s struggle against apartheid, died Thursday at his family home in a Johannesburg suburb at the age of 95.


Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader of South Africa's struggle against apartheid and the country's first black president, died Thursday at his family home in a Johannesburg suburb at the age of 95.

South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late on Thursday, saying "we've lost our greatest son".

Mandela was hospitalised for over a month earlier this year for what was described as a recurring lung infection.

The democracy icon is survived by third wife Graça Machel and three children, as well as second wife Winnie Madikizela, to whom he was married from 1958 to 1992.

Mandela earned the admiration of his country and the world at large, becoming South Africa’s first black president after spending 27 years in prison as a victim of the apartheid system he would later help tear down.

Although in his later years Mandela shied away from the public spotlight, he remained an enduring emblem of racial harmony, credited with leading a traumatised South Africa into the post-apartheid age.

Born into a royal clan on July 18, 1918, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Mandela attended local boarding schools and then Fort Hare University. While studying law, Mandela developed an interest in African nationalism and non-violent resistance. Later, while working as a law clerk, he became active in the African National Congress (ANC), eventually becoming the party’s vice president as South Africa’s regime continued to enforce apartheid.

In 1960, after a violent crackdown on anti-apartheid protesters, the ANC – banned by the ruling government – decided it was time to embrace armed revolt. Mandela helped plan guerrilla resistance, mapping out sabotage plots against government and military targets. Accused of conspiring against the government, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison at the Rivonia Trial of 1964. He was dispatched to Robben Island, near Cape Town, along with seven other ANC members.

‘An ideal for which I am prepared to die’

In his now famous “I am prepared to die” statement, which he delivered from the dock at the opening of the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said: “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 needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Those words would echo as a rallying cry for anti-apartheid protesters during his imprisonment.

While in jail at Robben Island, Mandela completed his law degree by correspondence. In 1982, after serving nearly 20 years, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in a suburb of Cape Town, along with other ANC figures. Six years later, he was moved to the Victor Verster Prison, where he remained until his release.

Throughout Mandela's time in prison, local and international pressure built for the South African government to release him. In the late 1980s, the campaign to release Mandela reached its apex, with demonstrators across the world’s major cities gathering and chanting the slogan: “Free Nelson Mandela!”

Their goal was reached in February 1990, when then president Frederik De Klerk, who had taken over from president P.W. Botha one year earlier, announced Mandela’s release.

Soon after he was freed, Mandela began negotiations with the South African government, leading to the gradual dismantling of apartheid over a period stretching from 1990 to 1993. Those negotiations earned Mandela and De Klerk a joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

On April 27, 1994, Mandela won South Africa’s first multi-racial elections, and vowed to build a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and with the world”. He created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the aim of resolving the gaping wounds left by apartheid and working toward national unity.

Mandela’s resolute focus on healing in the wake of injustices suffered personally and by many of his fellow countrymen is his best-known characteristic.

At the end of his term in 1999, Mandela withdrew from political life. But he remained active in various causes, particularly in the fight against AIDS, the disease that claimed the life of his son Mkgatho in 2005.

Evoking the wide-reaching symbolic importance of Mandela’s life, career and actions, South African cleric Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of Cape Town and a vocal opponent of racial segregation, called the man “a global icon of reconciliation”.

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