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Nelson Mandela, a lasting force for freedom, dies

Former South African President Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95.

AFP PHOTO - CLINTON FOUNDATION / BARBARA KINNEY

Former South African President Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95.

Nelson Mandela, one of the heroic figures of the 20th century, whose struggle against apartheid led to his imprisonment for 27 years, selection as corecipient of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with South African President F. W. de Klerk, and subsequent election as de Klerk’s successor, died Thursday at his Johannesburg home, the government announced. He was 95.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma of South Africa said in a televised address Thursday night.

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“The world’s favorite fairy tale,” Mr. Mandela’s friend and biographer Anthony Sampson once called his story. “The prisoner released from the dark dungeon, the pauper who turns out to be a prince, the bogeyman who proves to be the wizard.”

It was a fairy tale of global import. Mr. Mandela’s release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, marked the culmination of a worldwide upheaval that had begun the previous spring with the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and continued with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November. “It was as if God had taken a hand — a new turn in world history,” de Klerk confided to his brother.

‘‘He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages,’’ President Obama said at the White House on Thursday. ‘‘I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.’’

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Even more astonishing, perhaps, than the train of events that brought Mr. Mandela to lead the nation that had so long imprisoned him was how well he met the demands of his larger-than-life role. Hidden from the world for nearly three decades, he had been mythologized into a storybook figure. Yet Mr. Mandela somehow managed to make the storybook real. The flesh-and-blood man turned out to be even more impressive than the version the world had put on a pedestal. Blending principle and pragmatism, he forgave his jailers, shunned all talk of bitterness, and became a symbol of national reconciliation.

“If this man wasn’t there, the whole country would have gone up in flames,” observed Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and himself a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Mandela never sought retribution after his release from prison. But that did not mean he forgot his imprisonment. Asked once why he favored loosely cut shirts with a colorful pattern (they became a sartorial trademark), Mr. Mandela replied, “You must remember I was in jail for 27 years. I want to feel freedom.”

Mr. Mandela’s appearance contributed to his image as healer and father figure. His slight build, white hair, and crinkly-eyed, radiant smile made him the picture of warmth and avuncularity. That said, the firm set of his unsmiling mouth indicated how formidable an opponent Mr. Mandela could be.

The musicality of his speech further endeared Mr. Mandela to the world — and his ability to speak Afrikaans (albeit with a thick Xhosa accent, his native tongue) impressed even the most stalwart supporters of apartheid.

His political life took an appreciable toll on his domestic life. He was married three times. His second marriage, to Winnie Mandela, turned into a highly charged political melodrama through much of the ’90s. Even before his imprisonment, he had been an inattentive parent, something his release did not change. As his daughter Zindziswa once complained, “From the day my father was free, we had to share him with the rest of the world.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Mandela objected to actions by two of his daughters over handling of the Mandela Trust.

No one was more aware of his personal shortcomings than Mr. Mandela.

“I’m no angel,” he liked to remind Sampson.

Few have ever put to better use not being an angel. Mr. Mandela’s regal bearing and serene disposition won the hearts of the world. His hard-headedness and guile won him power. “You never quite know whether he’s a saint or a Machiavelli,” a colleague once observed.

While never willing to bend on his fundamental aim of abolishing apartheid and making South Africa a multiracial society, Mr. Mandela demonstrated a mastery of compromise and tactical flexibility during the four years between his release from prison and election as president, as well as during his five-year term of office.

An advocate of forcible revolution prior to his imprisonment, Mr. Mandela turned against it only because he came to see violence as an ineffective means to end racial separation. As he once explained, “I saw non-violence on the Gandhian model not as an inviolable principle but as a tactic to be used as the situation demanded.”

Mr. Mandela’s pragmatism extended beyond South Africa. Much to the annoyance of the US State Department, he refused to disavow such anti-American leaders as Fidel Castro and Moammar Khadafy, who had supported the antiapartheid cause during Mr. Mandela’s imprisonment. Such alliances were a further demonstration of his genius for unifying contradictory elements. The same man who brought together black and white in South Africa also managed to remain faithful to his roots in the liberation struggles of the ’50s and ’60s while thriving in the post-Cold War world of globalization.

Indeed, no less a captain of corporate capitalism than David Rockefeller said that Mr. Mandela was the most impressive person he’d ever met.

Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a village in South Africa’s Transkei region, on the southeast coast. His father, Henry Mgadla Mandela, was the village chief and a member of the royal house of the Thembu tribe. He died when Mr. Mandela was 9. Nosekeni Fanny Mandela, his mother, was one of his father’s four wives.

At age 7, the young Mandela was given by his schoolteacher a new first name, in honor of Lord Horatio Nelson, the British naval hero. Mr. Mandela was educated at Methodist schools and attended the University College of Fort Hare. He ran cross-country and boxed, emulating his hero, heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

When Mr. Mandela’s guardian tried to arrange a marriage for him, he ran away to Johannesburg. He took a job as a law clerk and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Africa in 1942.

“It was the most difficult time in my life,” he later said of those first years in Johannesburg, uncertain as to what his future might be.

Mr. Mandela began taking law classes at the University of Witwatersrand. His experience of the wider world politicized him. “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” “but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”

In 1944, Mr. Mandela married Evelyn Mase, a nurse. They would have two daughters, one of whom died as an infant, and two sons. One son died in a 1969 auto accident, the other died of AIDS in 2005. They divorced in 1957. He married Winnie Madikizela, a social worker, in 1958. They would have two daughters and divorce in 1996.

Also in 1944, Mr. Mandela joined the African National Congress, whose presidency he would assume in 1991. The ANC’s goal, as he once described it, was “the overthrow of white supremacy and the establishment of a truly democratic form of government.” That goal grew more distant with the coming to power in 1948 of the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party, which codified and strengthened apartheid (“apartness,” in Afrikaans).

In 1952, Mr. Mandela became deputy president of the ANC and joined with Oliver Tambo, who would head the ANC during his imprisonment, to form South Africa’s first black law firm. “Little did he think,” a white lawyer friend later commented, “that he would spend more time in the courts accused of capital and other crimes than representing others.”

Mr. Mandela’s court battles began that year. He was convicted of violating the Suppression of Communism Act, a catch-all law used against opponents of apartheid. He was sentenced to nine months in prison. He was also intermittently banned from attending public meetings. In 1956, he was among 156 antiapartheid activists charged with high treason. All finally won acquittal in 1961.

In 1960, police killed 69 protesters at Sharpeville, and the government banned the ANC. Mr. Mandela disavowed his longstanding commitment to nonviolence and set about organizing the military arm of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). He went underground, and his knack for eluding capture earned him the nickname “The Black Pimpernel.” He was finally arrested in August 1962 and charged with inciting strikes and having left the country illegally. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

A few months later, Mr. Mandela was charged with treason. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole, in 1964. He concluded his defense: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mr. Mandela was imprisoned at a maximum-security facility, Robben Island, near Cape Town. He spent 18 years there before being transferred to a less isolated prison on the mainland. “You have no idea of the cruelty of man against man,” he once remarked, “until you have been in a South African prison with white warders and black prisoners.”

Initially, Mr. Mandela could receive only two letters and two visitors a year. His cell was 7 feet square. Denied sunglasses while doing hard labor in midday light, he suffered permanent eye damage. Yet over time conditions did improve — somewhat — and Mr. Mandela later described those years as a period of intense reflection and personal growth.

“It was a tragedy to lose the best days of your life,” he said of his imprisonment, “but you learned a lot. You had time to think — to stand away from yourself, to look at yourself from a distance, to see the contradictions in yourself.”

The longer Mr. Mandela stayed behind bars the larger he loomed in the eyes of the world. The Times of London hailed him as “the colossus of African nationalism” on his 60th birthday. A Broadway musical, “Sarafina!,” centered on a South African girl who idolized him. In 1986, a citywide referendum proposed that minority neighborhoods secede from Boston and be renamed Mandela.

The extent of Mr. Mandela’s global prominence became apparent after his release. In June 1990, he enjoyed a triumphal tour of seven US cities. He addressed a joint session of Congress and held a White House press conference with President George H.W. Bush. In Boston, he addressed a rally at Madison Park High School; joked at the Kennedy Library that “Right now, I consider myself an honorary Irishman from Soweto”; and spoke to 250,000 people at a celebratory concert at the Hatch Shell.

“The world lost an ambassador of peace, reconciliation, and brotherly love today,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement on Thursday. “Nelson Mandela was a remarkable and inspiring example of resilience, persistence, determination and grace, in his time and for all time.”

Mr. Mandela’s imprisonment had an even greater impact at home. It had left him unmarked by struggles within the antiapartheid movement and put him on a plane where his leadership was unquestioned. As Sampson wrote in “Mandela: The Authorized Biography”: “His unequaled period in jail had protected him from criticism and abuse and earned him credentials which no one dared question.”

This status would prove indispensable following his release. It vastly strengthened Mr. Mandela’s position as he dealt with de Klerk and Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC’s chief rival among black South Africans, attempting to effect what was soon being called a “negotiated revolution.”

In South Africa’s first free elections, held in April 1994, the ANC took 62.6 percent of the vote. Mr. Mandela was inaugurated as president on May 10, with de Klerk as deputy president. For the next five years, he would strike an often-uneasy balance between transforming South African society while striving not to disaffect its Afrikaner population.

An example of this balancing act was the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted amnesty to those who had committed politically motivated crimes but only on condition of a full disclosure of acts perpetrated. Although the lion’s share of those receiving amnesty had been part of the apartheid regime’s security forces, ANC members were also found to have committed atrocities. The commission’s dedication to both investigation and forgiveness epitomized Mr. Mandela’s presidency.

In 1998, on his 80th birthday, Mr. Mandela wed Graça Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, the former president of Mozambique. He concluded his term as president the next year.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Mandela leaves his daughter Makaziwe by his first marriage, and daughters Zindziswa and Zenani by his second.

Mr. Mandela liked to describe himself in retirement as an “unemployed pensioner.” He concentrated on raising money for the Mandela Children Fund and the Mandela Foundation. The Atlantic Monthly called him “unofficial President of the Third World.”

He had a retirement house built in the Transkei, near his birthplace. It was modeled on the warder’s house in the compound where he had spent his last year in prison.

In 2002, Mr. Mandela was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.

When Mr. Mandela was on Robben Island, a prisoner circulated a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works among the inmates. He asked each to choose a favorite passage. Mr. Mandela selected these lines, from “Julius Caesar”:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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