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Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)
Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)


Indelible global icon Nelson Mandela dies at 95 Add to ...

Suddenly, Botha, wanting to release Mandela but not wanting to appear weak, ordered South African forces to attack ANC bases in neighbouring countries. He also cracked down again at home, imposing a state of emergency and sending troops to surround the townships, block main roads and search houses. In three weeks, more than 4,000 blacks were detained.


“The most discouraging moments,” Mandela insisted in his autobiography, “are precisely the time to launch an initiative.”

In the frenzied atmosphere of state terror, he asked to see Willie Willemse, the former Robben Island commandant who’d become commissioner of prisons, and told him he wanted to see Botha. The president refused, but Coetsee, the justice minister, agreed to the first of what were to be many meetings that led to Mandela’s eventual release.

In October, 1987, the ANC released a formal document reiterating its determination to dismantle apartheid and transfer power “to all the people.” The following June in Britain, the BBC broadcast a huge rock concert at London’s Wembley Stadium to mark Mandela’s 70th birthday. It featured a filmed message from the guest of honour that had been smuggled out of jail, and drew 200 million viewers in 60 countries, prompting a furious South African government to threaten to expel the network.

Shortly after his birthday, an ailing Mandela was diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis. He underwent surgery and spent six weeks in hospital before being transferred to a luxurious clinic – the only black patient on the premises. Then in December he was sent back to jail, this time the Victor Verster minimum-security prison farm near Paarl, the famous vineyard town a half-hour from Cape Town, where he was installed in a warder’s house with spacious gardens, a swimming pool and a personal cook.

Although living in comfort, he was isolated from friends and supporters just as he was about to negotiate with the government, not for his freedom, but to establish the ANC’s right to bargain on behalf of all disenfranchised South Africans for the release of political prisoners, the end to violence and a transition to true majority rule. The process was agonizing, undermined both by the difficulty in communicating with other ANC leaders – and by the erratic and shameless actions of his wife.

During the early years of his imprisonment, Winnie’s antics had kept his name alive, but her behaviour had become rasher and more inflammatory as her own fame increased. In a 1985 speech she had endorsed necklacing (executing suspected informants by igniting gasoline-soaked tires draped around their necks); and then in late 1988 she was implicated in the torture and murder of a 14-year-old boy by members of the “football club” that acted as her security unit. In public, Mandela supported his wife; in private, he was ashamed.

In January, 1989, the 73-year-old Botha suffered a stroke and by summer had been elbowed out by his education minister, F.W. de Klerk, “a small man with bad skin and worse taste in clothes, who spoke English badly, smoked heavily, and seemed somehow shifty,” according to a description in the Financial Times.

Change was in the ether after the tumultuous crash of communist dictatorships, like the toppling of so many Iron Curtain dominos. Pressure from abroad, the deflation of a Marxist insurrection and the deepening sanction-plagued economic crisis at home forced de Klerk’s hand. At the opening of parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, he astonished observers by promising to legalize all political organizations, including the ANC and the Communist Party, to release all political prisoners who had not been found guilty of violent crimes, to suspend all executions and to release Mandela “unconditionally.”

Nine days later, almost 28 years after being captured in his chauffeur’s disguise, the 71-year old Black Pimpernel walked out of prison holding hands with Winnie. At City Hall in Cape Town, he made his first public speech since addressing the Rivonia Trial in 1964, carefully presenting himself as the servant rather than the master of either Africans or the ANC. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today,” he said. “I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”


Prison had transformed Mandela from a revolutionary advocating armed rebellion into the wise man of Robben Island, a judicious and strategic leader. Everything else, including his former arrogance and defensiveness, seemed to have been stripped away, leaving a gentler, more relaxed human being, albeit one with an iron resolve, a moral authority and an implacable dignity. Old friends described him as “purified.” Novelist and friend Nadine Gordimer called him the “personification of the future.”

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