Mandela: The Miracle Maker

The extraordinary life of the man who liberated South Africa—and then kept the country from falling apart.

Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty

Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted—“even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.” He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.

And yet he worked miracles. The sight of the 71-year-old Mandela walking out of Victor Verster Prison to freedom after 27 years, raising his fist in triumph, practically defied belief. Many of his supporters had despaired that the regime would ever let him out. And yet despite spending a quarter-century behind bars for demanding his people’s rights, he wasn’t bitter. He remained optimistic about the human character. “There is a streak of goodness in men that can be buried or hidden and then emerge unexpectedly,” he later wrote.

By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else—not even Tutu himself—had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.

More than two decades after Mandela’s release, South Africa remains a nation beset by challenges: violent crime is rampant; roughly 40 percent of the young can’t find work, and life expectancy is among the lowest in the world. But none of this diminishes his extraordinary achievement: he was instrumental in persuading the country’s white-minority regime to accept a transfer to democratic rule—and finally a black man as president.

Mandela was born among the rolling grasslands and rocky ravines of the Transkei region, where whites were seldom seen. His great-grandfather was a king of the Thembu nation, and his father was a village chief with four wives. At 7, the boy became the first in his family ever to attend school, and his teacher, an African herself, gave him the English name Nelson to replace the one his father gave him at birth: Rolihlahla. In later years, Mandela would translate it with mingled pride and self-deprecating humor as “troublemaker.”

But the fact is that he was raised to fix problems, not to create them. At an early age he was sent to the Thembu royal court to begin training as a counselor to the future king, a process that included formal education at the best schools a black South African could attend. At 16, when he was formally initiated into manhood, Mandela received yet another name: Dalibunga—“convenor of the Great Council.” But Mandela had a mind of his own; he quit college in a spat over school policy and ran off to Johannesburg rather than submit to a traditional arranged marriage.

City life was a shock. Mandela’s rural childhood had not prepared him for the squalor and dangers of the black shantytowns or for the mindless racism he would encounter every day. Still, he found a job as a clerk in the offices of a sympathetic Jewish attorney, and living in a tin-roofed shed with no electricity or running water, he studied into the night to finish college. And then he spent seven arduous years as the only black law student at the University of Witwatersrand. The dean told him face to face that Africans lacked the innate skills necessary to become a barrister.

Mandela became an attorney anyway. And he joined the African National Congress. It was a stodgy group in those days, dominated by aging black businessmen who were reluctant to jeopardize their hard-earned comfort by agitating for change. Even so, it had begun to attract young activists like Mandela, determined to shake things up—still peacefully. But the country’s racial oppression grew worse. In 1948 the white-supremacist Nationalist Party took power and instituted a system even uglier than what had come before, enacting more than two dozen major laws to rescind the non-white majority’s few remaining rights.

One of those laws was the Suppression of Communism Act, under which Mandela and other ANC activists were arrested and charged in 1952. It defined any form of resistance to white rule as illegal communist subversion. The presiding judge shook his head at the charge and described it as “statutory communism,” pointedly remarking that it had “nothing to do with communism as it is commonly known.” He found the defendants guilty, sentenced them to hard labor and then suspended their sentence. That didn’t satisfy the regime, which issued an order banning Mandela from any gatherings of any sort and forbidding him to leave the Johannesburg area.

The restriction didn’t stop Mandela and an old friend and fellow ANC member, Oliver Tambo, from opening South Africa’s first African-run law firm. The waiting room at Mandela & Tambo soon overflowed with clients seeking justice in a country where it was in desperately short supply. Court transcripts show Mandela fighting for their rights the same way he would keep fighting for those of all South Africans regardless of skin color—fiercely and often against hopeless odds. In December 1956, he was arrested and charged with high treason, a capital offense, together with more than 150 other anti-apartheid activists. By the time the case ended five years later (in acquittal) Mandela’s law practice had collapsed, his first marriage had ended in divorce, and South Africa’s racial struggle had effectively become a war.

The first salvo was fired in the township of Sharpeville. On March 21, 1960, a panicky group of police officers opened fire on a crowd of black demonstrators, killing 69 and injuring more than 180. Many of the dead were shot in the back. Furious protests erupted across the country, and in a frantic attempt to restore order, the regime banned activist groups, including the ANC. As soon as the treason trial was over, Mandela said goodbye to his second wife, Winnie, and went underground to continue recruiting and organizing, traveling in various disguises—a chauffeur, a janitor, a gardener. Leftist newspapers began calling him the Black Pimpernel, and Mandela embraced the role, calling their reporters from pay phones to voice defiance of the regime.

For years Mandela had been urging the ANC to abandon its strict policy of passive resistance. Nonviolence was useless against a regime that would commit mass murder to stay in power, he said. Now the ANC’s president, Chief Albert Lutuli, reluctantly gave him permission to form a military wing. Mandela called it Umkhonto we Sizwe—the Spear of the Nation—and promised that its attacks would be limited to acts of sabotage against economic and government targets, scrupulously avoiding bloodshed.

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The conspirators were utter novices at armed action of any sort. Three decades later, as Mandela was finally leaving prison, his longtime friend and biographer Mary Benson recalled those days to Newsweek. “They hadn’t the foggiest idea how to blow things up,” she said. “It was very amateurish and desperate. But they felt people were getting impatient, that it was important to try to lead that anger into a sort of violence that does not harm people.” The campaign’s start was delayed by news that Lutuli had won the Nobel Peace Prize, but five days after he received the award, the bombings of government buildings began—with no casualties except among the saboteurs, one of whom was killed and another injured when a device exploded prematurely.

Mandela himself never carried out an attack. In fact, he spent most of the next six months outside the country, seeking support and training for the fledgling group. He returned in August 1962, and was arrested days later, charged with inciting a mass work stoppage and with leaving the country without valid travel documents. In a ringing address to the court, he denounced the brutality of the apartheid regime. “The government behaved in a way no civilized government should dare behave when faced with a peaceful, disciplined, sensible, and democratic expression of the views of its own population,” he said. He was sentenced to five years at hard labor.

He was still in prison a year later when he was tried yet again, this time as one of 17 ANC members and supporters accused of sabotage—another capital offense. Mandela didn’t deny the charge. Instead, he argued that the regime had left no alternative. “All lawful modes of expressing opposition ... had been closed by legislation,” he told the court. “At first we broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence. But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism.”

He ended in defiance. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “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 live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The words “if needs be” were inserted at his legal team’s insistence. They wanted him to cut the entire last sentence, but he refused. On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The regime may have thought that would be the end of him. Instead, it made him internationally famous. In a stroke of public-relations genius, the ANC’s exiled leadership selected him to be the face not only of its jailed members but of the entire anti-apartheid movement. He had never been the group’s president. He wasn’t even the highest-ranking of the prisoners. But he had always presented himself with the dignity and aristocratic bearing of the Thembu royal court, and no one had ever articulated the ANC’s ideals more eloquently than the former defense attorney had in his own trials. It didn’t matter that the regime was holding him incommunicado: his old closing statements continued to resonate around the world.

Outside Mandela’s prison, the bloody crackdowns and the violent reprisals only escalated. One of Umkhonto’s deadliest attacks was the 1983 car bombing that killed 19 people (including the two bombers) at rush hour outside the South African Air Force’s headquarters on Church Street in Pretoria. “The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll,” Mandela later wrote. “It was precisely because we knew that such incidents would occur that our decision to take up arms had been so grave and reluctant.”

Multinational corporations abandoned the country and international sanctions intensified. In early 1985, Prime Minister P.W. Botha publicly offered to free Mandela if only he would renounce violence. Mandela flatly rejected the proposal—“Only free men can negotiate,” he replied in a letter that was smuggled out of prison to be read publicly at a mass rally in Soweto. The ANC responded with a call to make the black areas ungovernable. Young radicals punished suspected government collaborators with a hellish form of execution they called “necklacing”: a gasoline-soaked tire was forced over the victim’s shoulders and chest and then set afire. Although the ANC officially condemned it, more than 400 black South Africans died this way between 1985 and 1989. Winnie Mandela didn’t help matters. At a township rally near Johannesburg, she boasted: “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”

Afrikaners have always taken pride in their frontier-stock tenacity. The regime nevertheless had to admit to itself that apartheid was doomed—and Mandela realized he would not live forever. He opened negotiations in early 1986, shortly after his recovery from prostate surgery. He had spent his whole life preparing for these talks, even teaching himself to speak Afrikaans, the regime’s native language, during his decades in prison. His quiet integrity was so powerful that by his later years in prison, even his jailers had begun to address him as Mr. Mandela. Fellow prisoners say he had never seemed to doubt that someday he would prevail. But discussions with government representatives went on for years before Botha’s successor as prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, finally unbanned the ANC and began officially moving toward full democracy in South Africa.

On February 11, 1990, Mandela left prison and rode into Cape Town past miles of cheering crowds. He spent the night at Tutu’s home, and spoke to the press in the garden the next morning, addressing worries that the white minority’s rights might now be trampled as those of the black majority had been. “We understand that fear,” he said. “The whites are our fellow South Africans. We want them to feel safe.”

The transition was rough, but the country made it. In December 1993, Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and Mandela became the country’s first black president the following May. He continued to work at assuaging white fears. He had tea with the widows of the country’s apartheid-era presidents, and he publicly rooted for the Afrikaners’ beloved Springboks rugby team, as recounted in the 2009 movie Invictus. “He had an unfailing ability to make just the right gesture at just the right time,” de Klerk wrote. “When he donned our national team’s green-and-gold rugby jersey after our fairy-tale victory in the rugby World Cup competition, he won the hearts of millions of white rugby fans.”

Tutu reveled in the ANC’s elected majority in Parliament. “I love this dream,” he said. “You sit in the balcony and look down and count all the ‘terrorists.’ They are all sitting there passing laws. It is incredible.” Still, they had no experience at running a country, and centuries of brutal inequality had damaged the society in a way that would not be easy to fix.

Mandela’s foreign policy was problematic at best. Before taking office he promised that “South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations.” Even so he remained stubbornly loyal to some highly dubious longtime foreign backers, regardless of how they treated their own people. He hailed Yasir Arafat as “my comrade in arms,” praised Fidel Castro’s “love of human rights and of freedom,” and saluted Muammar Gaddafi’s “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” When Americans raised questions about the associates he chose, he bristled: “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”

Millions of South Africans would eagerly have made Mandela their president for life. But in contrast to all too many revolutionaries, he was a genuine liberator: he refused to accept even a second term. “I would like to rest, and welcome the possibility of reveling in obscurity,” he told reporters as he left office. All he wanted, he said, was “to be able to walk around the valleys and little hills and streams where I grew up.” Instead, he devoted himself to humanitarian causes.

More than nine years later, his name remained on a U.S. government terrorist watch list. President George W. Bush finally signed a bill to remove it on July 1, 2008—15 years after Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize, and fully 18 years after he rode up Broadway through a blizzard of ticker tape, on his way to receive the key to the city on the steps of Manhattan’s City Hall. “It raises a troubling and difficult debate about what groups are considered terrorists and which are not,” then–Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was quoted as saying of the South African hero’s presence on the list. That stubborn question is also an indelible part of Mandela’s legacy.

He is survived by his third wife, Graca Machel (his marriage to Winnie ended in divorce in 1996) and three daughters. Midway through his term as president, he was interviewed by Anthony Lewis for The New York Times. When the inevitable topic of his place in history came up, Mandela declined to venture an opinion. “That would be very egotistic of me, to say how I would like to be remembered,” he said. “I’d leave that entirely to South Africans.”

He thought a moment longer. Then he said quietly: “I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’.”