Nelson Mandela Dies At 95, South Africa Mourns Greatest Freedom Fighter

on December 05 2013 4:52 PM

South Africa lost its most beloved freedom fighter on Thursday when Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95, said President Jacob Zuma in a televised speech.

Mandela leaves behind his wife Graca Machel, whom he married in 1998 at the age of 80. Machel was Mandela's third wife. Machel was also the widow of the former president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, who had perished in a plane crash ibn 1986.

Mandela's second wife was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, with whom he had two daughters, Zenani (born in 1958) and Zindziswa (1960).

Mandela's first wife was Evelyn Ntoko Mase, whom he married in 1944 but divorced 13 years later. They had two sons, Madiba Thembekile, who died in 1969, and Makgatho Mandela, who died in 2005. They also had  two daughters, both of whom were named Makaziwe Mandela. The first daughter was born in 1947 but died nine months later; the second girl, her namesake, was born in 1953. 

Mandela – often affectionately referred to by the tribal name Madiba – succumbed after years of frail health. The former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate is mourned by admirers in his home country and all around the world.

In South Africa, Mandela’s legacy is unmatched. His ascendancy marked the end of decades of apartheid, an institutionalized form of racial segregation that made black South Africans third-class citizens while the white minority held firmly onto power. That era ended in 1994, when the first free elections saw Mandela become the first black president.

But Madiba’s fight for equality began decades before that. He was born in 1918, a descendant of Xhosa tribal royalty.

“Apart from life, a strong constitution and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla,” wrote Mandela in his 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom." “In [the Xhosa language], Rolihlahla literally means 'pulling the branch of a tree,' but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be 'troublemaker.'”

The name "Nelson" was bestowed upon Rolihlahla during the early years of his English education.

It was just after 1948 -- when apartheid was first legislatively implemented -- that the future leader first became seriously involved in national politics. By that point, he had already earned a bachelor’s degree and apprenticed himself in the field of law. He joined the African National Congress, or ANC -- a political bloc outlawed by the apartheid government -- in 1944, and began working to promote nonviolent resistance.

But his philosophy changed over the next several years, as Mandela increasingly found himself the target of government authorities. He began to see violence as a necessary evil on the path to a more equal society, and founded a military arm of the ANC called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which began launching attacks against government institutions in the early 1960s.

“I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army,” wrote Mandela  in his autobiography. “It would be a daunting task for a veteran general, much less a military novice.”

In 1962, Mandela was caught by the authorities and sent to prison. He would remain behind bars for the next 27 years.

Those were not idle decades for Mandela. Studying via correspondence, he received a degree from the University of London. He also began laying a framework for eventual negotiations with the white government while ANC comrades on the outside rallied world support for South Africa’s majority black population.

By the time he was finally released in 1990, Madiba was a figure of world renown. Apartheid officially ended that same year, but the transition to majority rule was not fully realized until the ANC won national elections in 1994 and Mandela ascended to the country’s top post.

And thus began the five years that would cement Mandela’s place in history as one of the world’s most beloved political figures.

Most exceptional about Mandela’s tenure was his refusal to punish white South Africans for the power they had unjustly wielded for so many years. For him, reconciliation trumped revenge. For long-disenfranchised black citizens, Mandela rolled out a series of social welfare programs aimed at reversing a legacy of white supremacy. But he also took care not to frame progress as a goal for black citizens only -- the future, he knew, could only be built by all South Africans working together.

“The African National Congress believes that the charting of a new foreign policy for South Africa is key element in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous country. Apartheid corroded the very essence of life in South Africa,” wrote Mandela in 1993.

“This is why the country`s emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people -- irrespective of race, color, creed, religion or sex -- can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

Today, South Africa boasts an open electoral system. In all the years since Mandela’s election, ANC has dominated the national government.

Mandela decided not to seek a second term as president, stepping down in 1999 but continuing to work as a civilian activist and public speaker to ameliorate still-endemic problems like HIV/AIDS, poverty and vast gaps in wealth and income.

A lifelong defender of sovereignty for oppressed peoples and marginalized nations, Mandela used his global stature to defend various independence movements in Africa and around the world. This has made him an ally of controversial figures like former Cuban President Fidel Castro, the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At times, Mandela has also been a severe critic of the United States and the United Kingdom, accusing both of interfering in the affairs of other countries.  

Mandela retired from public life altogether in 2004, famously declaring that foreign dignitaries should leave him in peace with the quip: “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”

Since then, the former president has appeared in public only rarely. In his absence, South Africa has continued to make developmental progress -- it is now regarded as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

But all is not well in this country of 51 million. The legacy of the ANC, currently led by President Jacob Zuma, has been considerably tarnished by allegations of deep-seated corruption.

The ruling party has no viable competitors on the national level, but it has slowly grown out of touch with a whole generation of disillusioned voters, many of whom see the ANC, once oppressed in the age of apartheid, as their new oppressor. While societal divisions between black and white have blurred in recent decades, the line between the haves and have-nots remains quite clear.

Despite an impressive GDP of about $408 billion, South Africa has one of the world's biggest income gaps. Poverty is widespread, inequality is endemic and unemployment is around 25 percent.

In the summer of 2012, widespread labor disputes culminated in a series of strikes that affected the mining, farming and transportation industries and led to the deaths of at least 50 people in clashes between strikers and security officials. The violence brought back painful memories of South Africa’s apartheid years, making it clear that the country still has a long way to go as it works to shed its most damning legacy.

But Mandela’s reputation was essentially undamaged by these problems. He will be remembered as one of the world’s greatest politicians and human rights workers, and his death will be mourned for years to come.

Above all, Mandela knew that the fight for justice – in South Africa and all around the world -- would be an ongoing one.

“I have walked that long road to freedom,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

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