Freed at last, Mandela embraced reconciliation to save his nation. As South Africa's first black President, he set an example of unity and hope

  • Mandela 'emerged from 27 years in prison, drawing people to him with that huge smile and an eccentric old-fashioned courtesy," wrote Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society, in his biography of the continent. "Suddenly here was a voice that had earned the right to speak big truths about life and politics. After all the fury and bitterness, all the pain and anger, that voice was gentle, relaxed and full of hope." Tutu would later say Mandela's time in jail "was not wasted. He had gone to jail as an angry, frustrated young activist. In prison the fires of adversity purified him and removed the dross; the steel was tempered. He learned to be more generous in his judgment of others, being gentle with their foibles. It gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges--paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest."

    So it was, in the endless speeches and press conferences that followed, that Mandela stressed reconciliation. "I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another." He told reporters at his first press conference, "Whites are fellow South Africans, and we want them to feel safe and to know we appreciate the contribution that they have made toward the development of this country." His countrymen often didn't listen. White security forces shot black protesters. The demonstrators fought back. Supporters of the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party battled activists from the ANC. The police and Inkatha even worked together to orchestrate violence through the early 1990s. In August 1990, the ANC suspended armed actions, but in the streets hundreds of people were dying every month. In June 1992, when an Inkatha mob killed 46 residents of a pro-ANC township, Mandela suspended talks with the government.

    Mandela had other problems at home. In April 1992, he announced his separation from Winnie, who had been convicted of kidnapping Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old ANC supporter suspected of treachery. (One of Winnie's bodyguards was found guilty of the boy's murder.) Mandela blamed his life, and his stature, for the breakdown. "She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all." The time away from his family, Mandela added, "has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made ... To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy."

    At the end of 1993, Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And despite more near disasters, like the assassination of the popular Communist Party leader Chris Hani by a white extremist, the pair reached an agreement on a new constitution, an interim government of national unity and a general election to be held on April 27, 1994.

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