Liberator of a torn South Africa

Nelson MandelaBill Clinton, Former US President with Mandela, peering through the bars of his prison on Robben Island

The question most often asked about Nelson Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.

The explanation for his absence of rancour, at least in part, is that Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.

When the question was put to Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.

Rise of a 'Troublemaker'

Mandela was deep into a life prison term when he caught the notice of the world as a symbol of the opposition to apartheid. Around 1980, "Free Nelson Mandela", already a liberation chant within South Africa, became a pop-chart anthem in Britain, and Mandela's face bloomed on placards at student rallies in America aimed at mustering trade sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom", that this congregation made him the world's best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humour, but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London, many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei, a former British protectorate in the south. His given name, he enjoyed pointing out, translates colloquially as "troublemaker". He received his more familiar English name from a teacher when he began school at age 7. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief of the Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.

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