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Obituary: Nelson Mandela, South Africa's 'Greatest Son,' Dead at 95

Former South African President Nelson Mandela speaking after being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the University of Galway in 2003.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela speaking after being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the University of Galway in 2003.
For decades, the church hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("Lord Bless Africa") was the spiritual anthem of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Sung at demonstrations, during sit-ins, and at funerals by the country’s black majority, it was an expression of defiance.

With the end of white minority rule in the 1990s, the song became South Africa’s official national anthem.

And so it was with Nelson Mandela, who began his adult life as an underground resistance leader, grew in stature as a political prisoner and symbolized his nation’s transition to a multiracial democracy when he became its president.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa in 1918, the son of local tribal chief. Later, a schoolteacher gave him the name “Nelson." Perhaps it was easier to pronounce.

Thanks to his family’s position, he received a university education. Upon graduation, Mandela worked briefly as an apprentice at a Johannesburg law firm. But it was clear that as a black man, opportunities for advancement would be very limited.

With the electoral victory in 1948 of the National Party, which advocated a policy of apartheid -- or total separation of the races -- blacks lost most of the tenuous rights they had held to date. They were banned from most jobs, restricted in their social contacts with whites and prevented from freely moving around their own country -- in short, pushed to the very margin of society.

As Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, frequently reminded his supporters in the 1950s, the goal of the policy was to ensure permanent white domination of the country.

"My friends, this republic is part of the white man’s domain in the world!" Verwoerd said.

Rooted In Nonviolence

Mandela joined the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), a movement that advocated nonviolent resistance to the laws that kept whites in control of society.

Decades before, even before the harsh strictures of apartheid, a then little-known Indian lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi was inspired by the oppression he experienced in South Africa to start a nonviolent struggle for racial equality.

Mandela referred to Gandhi many times as an inspiration. For nearly two decades, he followed in his footsteps.

But by the early 1960s, Mandela and his associates felt the movement was going nowhere.

With the government declaring a state of emergency, increasing its use of violence to suppress dissent and crush anti-apartheid demonstrations, the ANC made the choice -- as Mandela put it -- “to answer violence with violence.”

Unlike in many other African countries, the ANC made the deliberate choice not to start a guerrilla campaign and not to target human life.

A Leader Behind Bars

Sabotage of government property was the tactic chosen. Post offices and phone installations were bombed. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

The next year, while in prison, he and other ANC activists were charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Mandela and seven co-defendants received life sentences in 1964.

It was at that trial that Mandela, in a four-hour speech, delivered an eloquent defense of his actions, tracing the ANC’s reasons for its tactics against the white regime and laying out the movement’s demands. Chief among them: full political equality for the black majority. With the threat of execution weighing against him he said to the judge, in effect, hang me if you dare.

"I have fought against white domination. And I have fought against black domination. It is an ideal for which I hope to live," Mandela said. "But my lord, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

The judge scoffed and Mandela was transferred to the notorious prison at Robben Island, where he was to spend the next 27 years.

WATCH: A brief history of the life of one of the 20th century's greatest champions of freedom and justice:
Nelson Mandela: 'Father' Of Modern South Africa
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While in prison, Mandela’s stature grew and the anti-apartheid movement acquired a global dimension. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on the country, boycotts grew, and Mandela became the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience.

New Day

When he emerged from jail in 1990, it was to a hero’s welcome. A new era was dawning in South Africa.

Over the next three years, Mandela, along with South African President F.W. De Klerk, worked to dismantle the structures of apartheid, paving the way for the country’s first fully democratic elections.

Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with De Klerk for this momentous achievement.

In 1994, Mandela was elected president in his country’s first multiracial elections.

He served one term in office, winning international respect for his advocacy of national and international reconciliation.

When Mandela stepped down in 1999, he left a troubled country but one that had taken giant steps. Later, he became an advocate for AIDS education, following the death of his eldest son from AIDS complications. Once again he demonstrated his courage, speaking publicly about his loss from the illness at a time when doing so was considered taboo.

He retired from public life in 2004.

He fell gravely ill earlier this year, sparking a massive outpouring of love and good wishes from South Africa and the world. South Africans held candlelight vigils outside his hospital, fearing the worst, until September 1, when, with reports circulating that he was in a dire state, he was sent home from the hospital.

Months of silence followed.

Then on December 5, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that Mandela had passed away "peacefully," surrounded by his family, at his Johannesburg home. He added that the country had lost its "greatest son," the "father" of modern South Africa.

Mandela dies with a giant’s stature -- comparable in the eyes of many to his hero Gandhi, as a man who changed a nation, not through force of arms but through moral example.

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