South Africa Loses Its 'Greatest Son': Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

December 5, 2013 - 8:18 PM

APTOPIX Obit Nelson Mandela

Former South African President Nelson Mandela in 2005. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

( – South Africans had been preparing themselves for many months, but when the news broke late on Thursday night local time it still came as a shock: Nelson Mandela, one of the most widely-admired and recognizable figures of the 20th century and beyond, had died, aged 95.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” South African President Jacob Zuma said in televised statement. “Our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”

Tributes flooded in from across the world; news organizations set aside schedules to publish, broadcast and post long-prepared obituaries of a man who for many symbolized the ability to overcome injustice without bitterness, promoting reconciliation with those who had jailed him for almost three decades and enforced a system of racial segregation unparalleled in modern history.

“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” President Obama said in a statement delivered within an hour of Zuma’s announcement, describing him as “a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the apartheid government, 18 of them on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, where his cell has drawn visitors from across the world, including Obama earlier this year.

Amid growing civil strife he was released in 1990, an event that prompted widespread celebration, but also trepidation among many whites fearful that blacks would seek vengeance. That a bloodbath did not ensue was widely attributed to Mandela’s impassioned calls for reconciliation, reinforced by his own personal example.

He went on to win the Nobel peace prize in 1993, along with F.W. de Klerk – South Africa’s last white minority head of state – and the following year became the country’s first popularly-elected president, a position he held until 1999.

“He didn’t only talk about reconciliation; he lived reconciliation,” De Klerk said Thursday. “He had a remarkable lack of bitterness.”

Mandela and Gaddafi

Then-South African President Nelson Mandela and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli on Oct. 22, 1997. (AP Photo/Mohamed El-Dakhakhny, File)

Mandela’s presidency was not without controversy. Apparently driven by a sense of loyalty to those who had supported his African National Congress while it was banned at home and its leaders imprisoned or exiled abroad, he embraced the likes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, a trend deeply troubling to many South Africans and others.

As Mandela prepared to pay a visit to Libya in 1997 – shrugging off State Department expressions of concern – Libyan exiles published letters in a Johannesburg newspaper deploring the decision and highlighting what they saw as the irony of his stance.

“I simply cannot believe that it is too much to ask of you what you have asked the world to do in the recent past: boycott tyranny and oppression,” wrote one.

Another called the visit an insult to “the thousands of Libyans who are still in the jails of this tyrant [Gaddafi], subjected to torture on a daily basis for asking nothing more than what you and the people of South Africa have asked for: to breathe free in our own land.”