They had pinned their hopes to him. It was February 1990 and about half a million people stood under a vast and blaring sun anticipating the return of one of South Africa’s most prolific prisoners and leaders.
Some squatted on the steps of government buildings. Others propped their children on the hoods of cars for a better view. Similar gatherings were being held from Soweto to rural villages.
On February 12, 1990 their wait ended when a thin but unbowed Nelson Mandela emerged from prison at 71. Alongside his wife at the time, Winnie, the salt-and-pepper haired man greeted the rapturous crowd with a look of pride and one triumphant fist in the air.
After 27 years in prison, and the banning of his image or words from print, the man-turned-myth became a reality for all those who had loved and feared him the most. “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” Mandela told a crowd of cheering supporters after his release. “We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle.”
At a time when apartheid outlawed South Africans on their own homeland, Mandela’s words spilled into Capetown as more than a decree; they were revolution. “He is a person of magnetic presence,” says leading anti-apartheid activist Cyril Ramaphosa. “If you are in a room with him, you immediately sense that you are with a person of unique greatness.”
Born in the rural village of Qunu, what is now considered the region of Transkei, Mandela often called himself a “country boy” and took pride in his rural lifestyle (after his release from prison he later built a house near Transkei under the firm belief that “a man should die near where was born.”).
Before attending boarding school, young Mandela spent his days tilling land and herding cattle. During the nights, he’d stay awake listening to tribal elders spin tales of a South Africa before the white man. In 1930, after his father died, he lived with the chief of the Tembu tribe. Only 12 years-old at the time, his wit and intelligence marked him as a future heir to the chief’s position. “He didn’t like to be provoked. If you provoked him he would tell you,” said Mabel, Mandela’s sister. “He had no time to fool around… we could see he had leadership qualities.”
But Mandela – whose tribal name, Rolihlahla , means “one who brings trouble upon himself” – had a different path in mind. In his late teens, he renounced his rights to chiefdom and fled an arranged marriage to study law. He enrolled in 1940 at Fort Hare College in the Easter Cape, where he organized a student protest that led to his expulsion.
With his lawyer plans on hold, he headed to Johannesburg where he briefly worked as a night watchman in gold mines until Walter Sisulu, a local A.N.C. leader, helped him land a clerk job in a law office.
Sisulu had hoped to organize the A.N.C. to jumpstart a social movement for black South Africans. Mandela was just what he needed. “We wanted to be a mass movement, then one day a mass leader walked into my office,” said Walter Sisulu of the first time he met Mandela. While working with the A.N.C and studying for his correspondence law degree, Mandela married Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a nurse with whom he eventually had three children – two boys Thembi and Makgatho, then Maki, their daughter – but their marriage was wrought with disagreement.
Evelyn wanted a husband who focused on his career and family. Mandela wanted a world free of injustice. Mandela, who by then had organized a Youth League of the A.N.C., concentrated his efforts on non-violent protests and “stay-at-home” strikes against apartheid. By 1955, he separated from Evelyn and they divorced two years later. Invariably, this imbalance between personal life and activism would become a constant challenge for Mandela who once, when asked by his oldest son why he doesn’t stay home at night, explained that there were millions of South African children who needed him.
“It was a terrible thing to have to say to his own son and in many ways this sacrifice was the greatest pain he ever knew,” wrote TIME editor Richard Stengel in his 2009 tribute to Mandela, Mandela’s Way.
A great pain indeed, but Mandela’s words were often true: South Africa’s children, huddled in squalid townships, did need him. It was 1948 and some 3.5 million people were uprooted from their homes to live in designated areas based on race. South Africans traveled with passes detailing if they were white, black, Indian, or colored (mixed race) and a white minority ruled over the country.
Mandela and members of the A.N.C. responded swiftly. In 1956, the organization issued the Freedom Charter, which advocated racial equality, free education and medical care, as well as public ownership of mines, banks, and big industry. “It was a time when we talked about nothing but politics,” recalls Annie Cachalia, who organized early protests with Mandela. “But there were times when merrymaking was going on. Mandela was a very likeable person who made friends easily and likes to laugh and joke a lot.”
In his moments of lightheartedness, the 6 ft 2 activist enjoyed practicing amateur boxing and had charmed his way into the heart of a 20 year-old social worker named Winnie Mandikizela.
Mandela, 16 years her senior, would take Winnie out for Indian food or the occasional walk through the countryside. A once-timid and demure girl, she reveled in the attention but soon found their courtship entangled in Mandela’s arrests.
During a six-day recess from Mandela’s Treason Trial in 1958, without a formal proposal, Winnie married the man her father jokingly called a “jailbird.” The newlyweds enjoyed a brief moment of married bliss until Mandela, almost immediately after their wedding, went into hiding as the head of the ANC’s underground military. He organized bombings on power plants, rail lines, and other strategic government targets.
“He did not even pretend that I would have some special claim to his time,” said Winnie in a biography on Mandela. “There never was any kind of life I can recall as family life, a young bride’s life where you sit with your husband. You just couldn’t tear Nelson from the people; the struggle, the nation came first.”
After more than a year in hiding, Mandela was eventually captured, charged with illegal demonstrations, and convicted to five years in prison. While serving his sentence, police connected him to the ANC’s underground military and charged him with treason and sabotage. In June 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela would spend nearly three decades in prison, estranged from loved-ones, reminiscing with his children behind glass walls, and awaiting scarce 30-minute visits from Winnie.
Despite prison’s toll on his family, much of Mandela’s growth occurred behind bars.
With many of his comrades – Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu from the ANC – also imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela used incarceration as a chance to sharpen their political thinking.
When they weren’t hammering gravel for roads or laboring in the prison’s limestone quarry, the inmates read books, discussed politics, and debated. They firmly protected their principles against goon-like warders who, without probable cause, often beat inmates and stripped them of basic privileges. “You have no idea the cruelty of man against man,” said Mandela who initially had no access to radio or newspapers and could only receive one letter every sixth months. “Until you have been in a South African prison with white warders and black prisoners.”
Every cement-blocked morning marked another day divested of dignity. Prisoners were woken at 5:30 a.m to clean their cells and bathe in iron buckets of cold water. They ate breakfast from a drum filled with corn porridge, which Mandela found almost inedible. Warders would inspect prisoners clothing before sending them off to pound stones in the prison courtyard. Meals were infrequent, hours were long. At night, warders patrolled halls to make sure inmates weren’t reading or writing. Sometimes prisoners would whisper softly from their cells, a small semblance of human communication.
Yet, despite these daily injustices, they remained resilient in thought. Mandela and his comrades shared smuggled political news and Shakespeare passages that related to the movement. They performed Sophocles’ Antigone, with Mandela playing the role of Creon. The newfound thespian also loved Tolstoy and War in Peace, which he finished in three days and mailed to his youngest daughter, Zeni.
Prison became their unofficial university, with Mandela as the institutions lead instructor. All literary works spurred a chance for liberation and self-control despite their confinement.
“What was important,” said Mandela after his release “was the fact that the ideas for which we were sent to Robben Island would never die.”
But Mandela’s road to prison was often paved with tragic news beyond his reach and control. Through letters smuggled from friends, he’d learn that the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa had taken a nasty turn when Winnie, his estranged love and the de facto new leader, had started a rogue group of violent activists called the “Mandela United Football Club”, which targeted apartheid sympathizers and spies. The most shocking incident involved the murder of a 14-year-old activist in Soweto.
Winnie had also delivered a speech in 1986 that called for the capture and burning of suspected police informants in black townships. Amongst the movement’s scandalous developments, his oldest son, Thembi died in a car crash in 1970, and his mother died, as well. These unfortunate family losses and the isolation of incarceration soon made him harbor a belief that his family hated him.
In addition to Mandela’s feelings of distress and helplessness towards his loved ones and the movement’s developments, prison authorities would sever the only human connections he now had by transferring him in 1982 to a maximum security block in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. The authorities apparently wanted to isolate him once more and prevent him from indoctrinating his fellow prisoners at Robben Island. Mandela spent much of his next six years in prison by himself, cut off from the political comrades he had made, and then contracted a severe case of tuberculosis in 1988, which he was hospitalized for. When he recovered, authorities again moved him to the Victor Verster Prison Farm near Cape Town, where he spent his next and final two years.
Reading newspapers and watching television to stay current with the happenings in South Africa and its antiapartheid movement were a few of the consolations Mandela had now “earned” in spite of his renewed isolation. Through these lenses to the outside world, he received glimpses of a South Africa finally ready for change. In these final two years, the apartheid South African government became more open to negotiations, starting to buckle under increasing public pressure for apartheid’s abolishment and for the release of the man who made this his dream. In 1989, President de Klerk allowed Mandela to hold discussions with the apartheid government cabinet, and even allowed Mandela to visit with leading antiapartheid activists. Then, on February 11th, 1990, De Klerk freed Mandela from his life sentence, after twenty-seven years. Mandela—thinner and much grayer but still just as beloved and inspiring—walked out of Victor Vester Prison as a free man again to an amassed crowd of approximately half-a-million people.
“I was completely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm,” Mandela later reflected. “It is something I did not expect.” At 71, he left prison with more than half of his life behind him and a full agenda ahead. Mandela took on the arduous task of convincing Black opponents to trust his post-prison while reconciling with old enemies. In the years after his release, he would lead the country through a tumultuous fight against apartheid and the restoration of rights for black South Africans. Then, finally South Africans cast their first ballots on April 27, 1994. Mandela won the election for president by a majority vote. Mandela said, “I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination. 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 life for and to achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His close friends and family know Mandela as a very complex man. Yet, his beliefs will continue the legacy of freedom fighting. He was disinterested in material possessions but would dispatch a guard an hour away to search for his favorite pen. He was generous but refused to tip at restaurants. He was loved by strangers but estranged from his closest relatives and loved ones. Nevertheless, what remains consistent and uncontested about Mandela, underneath all these dichotomies, is his passion.
Mandela had the insight to know that his mission for freedom did not begin nor would it end with him. “Men come and men go,” said Mandela during an interview in home, Houghton, South Africa. “I’ve come and I will go when my time comes.”