Remembering South African leader Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom

Nelson Mandela will be remembered by the world for his peaceful pursuit of equal rights for all South Africans and as the post-apartheid nation's first president. Former NewsHour senior correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks back at the activist and peacemaker's 27 years in prison and his victory over decades of oppression.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to a personal retrospective on the life of Nelson Mandela from one of our own.

Former NewsHour senior correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault covered the South African leader for more than a decade, and interviewed him on a number of occasions, from the time he left prison to his election as South Africa's president.

She prepared this remembrance.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To my generation, the one that came of age in the '60s, Nelson Mandela was a towering man of myth and legend, of action and passion, of selfless sacrifice.

And before any of us ever dreamed, he became the embodiment of a notorious decades-long struggling against white oppression. Many would call that victory a miracle, Mandela the miracle maker.

These rare images from the book "Mandela: The Authorized Portrait" help us tell the story of Mandela's long walk to freedom.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in a tiny rural village in the Transkei on South Africa's eastern coast. But it was here in neighboring Qunu that the man who was to become a legend was nurtured, spending some of the happiest years of his boyhood.

Qunu is a gentle place of rolling hills and farms, where children still play Mandela did when he wasn't laboring in these fields as a herd boy, looking after his mother few sheep and calves. In time, they would call him Madiba, his Xhosa clan name for respect.

Here, Xhosa boys, even ones like Mandela, descended from royalty, were shaped by Xhosa ritual and taboo, tradition that taught respect and responsibility for others. As Mandela grew into manhood, the Xhosa mantle of responsibility led him to fight against oppressive white minority rule that deprived and demeaned Mandela and his fellow Africans.

In 1948, oppression was legalized into a system known as apartheid. As a young lawyer in the 1940s, Mandela joined the African National Congress, an organization then dedicated to peacefully pursuing equal rights for all South Africans.

Mandela emerged as one of its leaders, staging mass rallies, strikes and campaigns of defiance against apartheid's unjust laws. But by 1960, the harsh white government's resistance to the ANC's peaceful process caused Mandela and his ANC colleagues to launch a military wing operating underground.

Their armed resistance was called Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation. The campaign was aimed at military industrial and civil installations, and not soft or human targets. But in time, the ANC's bombings and urban guerrilla warfare resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people, though exact figures aren't known. But their acts bore no comparison to the thousands murdered and otherwise disappeared by the regime.

NELSON MANDELA: There are many people who feel that it is useful and futile for us to continue talking peace and nonviolence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In 1962, a vicious crackdown by the apartheid state was unleashed, and Mandela was caught up in the regime's wide net.

As he sat in prison, his ANC colleagues were also rounded up at a farm in an area outside of Johannesburg called Rivonia and jailed. In 1963, during what came to be called the Rivonia trial, the government tried and convicted Mandela and seven of the top command of the ANC on charges of sabotage aimed at fomenting violent revolution, a capital offense.

In June 1964, the eight were sentenced to life in prison. Even from his cell on Robben Island, the Alcatraz-like site of the country's harshest, most remote prison, six miles off the coast of Cape Town, Mandela was uncompromising, says Helen Suzman, then a particularly representative who spoke out against apartheid.

HELEN SUZMAN, former South African politician: He had no hesitation. He rattled off all the complaints about the bad food, the fact he was sleeping on sleeping rolls, not proper mattresses, the fact that the visits were too few and far between, and mostly about the behavior of a warden, yes, who has a tattoo on the back of his hand of the swastika. And he said, this man really is very bad. He treats us badly.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But even then, Mandela was ever the statesman.

HELEN SUZMAN: His bearing, his self-confidence, remarkably self-confident man. He was never making outrageous remarks about the government. He was always thoughtful. And what he said was, you know, in keeping with someone who wanted peace.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And he used the captive audience in prison to educate his young followers for the future he envisioned. They even called it Mandela University.

Tokyo Sexwale was one of the students.

TOKYO SEXWALE, African National Congress: And that's where he was teaching of the spirit of reconciliation, studying history, studying science, studying everything that we were supposed to equip ourselves, economics, to prepare ourselves for the new South Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mandela's life sentence removed him physically from the fight against apartheid, but his spirit was felt throughout the townships of South Africa.

The government pressed hard to retain control of a black population that refused to be silenced. In 1985, I made my first trip to the land of Mandela's birth to find out what was driving the country's people, black and white, and also to determine how much of Mandela's spirit was still alive.

What -- what are you singing about? Tell me, what is this about? What is the song about?

GIRL: Mandela, Mandela.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mandela?

GIRL: Mandela.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mandela and...

(CROSSTALK)

WOMAN: We want Mandela to be released from jail.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Really?

WOMAN: And those who are exile to come back.

MAN: There's one man we all respect and we take him -- we call him our father, none other than Nelson Mandela.

If and only if that man can be released, and then we can see the direction of South Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From those otherwise dark days, a new direction was on the horizon, as pressure at home and abroad mounted on the regime.

The apartheid system was crumbling. Mandela, who had been moved to a different prison, began four years of secret negotiations with the government that would eventually lead to the release of many of the political prisoners and the unbanning of the ANC. Change seemed inevitable. And the South African foreign minister admitted as much in an interview with me following my reporting on South Africa for NewsHour in 1985.

ROELOF FREDERIK "PIK" BOTHA, former South Africa Foreign Minister: I made my position clear. We have said that we have outgrown apartheid.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But Mandela's own release would not come for another five years, in 1990.

After 27 years, Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man. He was 71 years old. And few had seen him or any up-to-date photograph of him in all those years. At his side were now Winnie Mandela, his defiant wife who had kept his name and his message alive, and other comrades from the African National Congress.

NELSON MANDELA: Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NELSON MANDELA: I stand here, before you, not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NELSON MANDELA: It has to be ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I left for South Africa as soon as I saw those pictures. And within a few days from his release from prison, I found myself sitting with him in his backyard in the black township of Soweto, where I soon gleaned insight into Mandela's iron resolve, as well as his humility.

NELSON MANDELA: We fought back. And as I -- I must stress again, I was not the only one who fought back. We all fought back.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In what way? I mean, in what...

NELSON MANDELA: And the amount of bravery, of courage that was displayed was absolutely marvelous. And we had hunger strikes and resisted doing anything which we considered to be humiliating.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Were you aware of this mythical character that was being built up in the outside world, through portraits on television, movies, this sort of thing? And did that concern you at all, or...

NELSON MANDELA: Well, that worried me a bit.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why?

NELSON MANDELA: Because I wanted to be presented as I am. And I'm an ordinary human being, with weaknesses. And you don't want that to be built up into something that you are not.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Still, Nelson Mandela was the man of the hour, and he wasted no time on efforts to dismantle the apartheid regime, even before a full United Nations assembly in 1990.

NELSON MANDELA: We know also that you harbor the hope that we will not relent or falter in the pursuit of that common vision, which should result in the transformation of South Africa into a country of democracy, justice, and peace.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In 1993, the year before apartheid ended, Mandela shared his vision of a new South Africa as he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the man who had seen the handwriting on the wall and acted, the last apartheid president, F.W. De Klerk.

NELSON MANDELA: South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new way that is striving to be born. This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, in South Africa, change was accompanied as the last gasp of the regime as it backed black-on-black violence.

Still, Mandela's way prevailed. And on the 27th of April, 1994, Mandela himself voted for the first time in his life, at age 75.

A few days before, Mandela and I sat down in Johannesburg, and I got a rare glimpse into his steely side when I asked him about De Klerk's assertion that a liberation movement wouldn't know how to govern and that Mandela's presidency wouldn't be as powerful as his.

NELSON MANDELA: My power of persuasion is sufficient.

I have wielded power as a prisoner, without occupying any position, and Mr. De Klerk had to recognize that. We have taken decisions and forced him to use his legal powers. The decision was taken by us.

Take, for example, how he dismissed two ministers. We gave him an ultimatum that you must appoint a judicial commission to investigate the question of violence. He must dismiss a certain two ministers. And he came out and he said he would never do that.

We embarked on mass action. He was forced to do exactly what he said he would never do. So, we have wielded power even before we assumed the government of the country. And that is how the situation should be examined.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela took another giant step on a journey that took him from prisoner to president.

NELSON MANDELA: We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Elements of the repressive apartheid past remained, but Mandela and his young government rose above them, insisting on forgiveness and reconciliation, which would become the hallmark of his presidency.

NELSON MANDELA: It is necessary for one to heal the wounds of the past if you're going to build your country and to have unity.

I am working with people who fought me very bitterly before the elections. It was my responsibility, as the man who is leading the majority party, my responsibility to heal the wounds of the past and to work with people who were my opponents.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mandela kept his part of the bargain, enabling a forum offering amnesty in exchange for truth about apartheid-era atrocities on all sides. It was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Countless black victims came forward, but almost none of the whites who had ordered or committed atrocities did or told the truth. But the process is credited with averting a bloodbath as the government changed from white to black hands. Moreover, Mandela's government put to rest concerns that the ANC's past leftist rhetoric would lead to nationalizing the economy. Instead, he told the world his country would be a democratic, capitalist society, and kept his word.

Mandela's government also established principles of redress aimed at bringing blacks into the economic mainstream, while building millions of houses and providing basic services that didn't exist for the poor, not enough and not fast enough for all, but enough to earn the gratitude of millions and the patience of most of its long-suffering people.

But Mandela's own personal life suffered. The Mandelas divorced. Mandela stepped down after serving only one term, setting a new standard on a continent of presidents for life.

At the same time, Mandela had set the bar so high, it would be close to impossible for anyone to fill his shoes or to think of South Africa as anything but a miracle nation, a perception that would belie South Africa's down-to-earth realities and create problems for anyone not the icon Mandela had become, not least because the icon stayed in the adoring public's eye.

On his 80th birthday, Mandela married his third wife, Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel.

As his physical walk became more labored, Mandela announced his retirement from public life.

NELSON MANDELA: Don't call me.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON MANDELA: I will call you.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, even in his later years, Mandela kept on walking, joined by his wife in their advocacy for the world's children and boldly making up for the silence and inattention on HIV and AIDS dating back to his own time in office.

Mandela had come to realize the disease was overwhelming the country he loved and threatening the very future he sought to ensure, not least taking the life of his one remaining son. Mandela took on AIDS as a public crusade and spoke out forcefully about the need for others in high positions to join him, though few did.

NELSON MANDELA: I am alive because the people gave me love and support. And that is why I am here today to deal with your questions. So, there is no difference whatsoever between somebody who is HIV-positive and myself.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mandela was equally passionate about children, the nation's, his own and Graca Machel's. And in time, he even brought Winnie back into the family fold.

And that extended family will join a cast of millions who will honor him from far and near as he becomes an ancestor, buried in the Mandela family cemetery in his quiet village of Qunu, free at last from his epic journey, free to take a moment of rest on his now long walk to eternity.

GWEN IFILL: That's Charlayne Hunter-Gault.