Former South African President Nelson Mandela dies

Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 4:49 p.m. CST; updated 7:35 a.m. CST, Friday, December 6, 2013
Nelson Mandela died Thursday. He was 95.

COLUMBIA — Idolized in the West as a civil rights crusader, Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, has a more complex legacy in his home country of South Africa. 

Mandela, the global face of the anti-apartheid movement and the first black president of South Africa, led the country through sometimes violent political upheaval, and his death leaves questions about the future of politics in South Africa. 

Timeline of Nelson Mandela's life

Nelson Mandela had a long life full of storied achievements. Here is a summary of the most important events in his life: 

  • July 18, 1918: Nelson Mandela is born Rolihlahla Mandela in South Africa
  • 1925: Begins to attend primary school and is given the name "Nelson" by a teacher 
  • 1942: Completes bachelor's degree at the University of South Africa and begins to attend African National Congress meetings 
  • 1943: Graduates with bachelor's degree from the University of Fort Hare 
  • 1944: Co-founds the ANC Youth League 
  • 1951: Elected president of the ANC Youth League
  • 1952: Sentenced to nine months of imprisonment and hard labor; elected ANC deputy president 
  • April 8, 1960: The ANC is banned following the Sharpeville Massacre 
  • Nov. 7, 1962: Sentenced to five years in prison for incitement and leaving South Africa without a passport 
  • May 27, 1963: Sent to Robben Island prison 
  • Feb. 2, 1990: The ban on the ANC is lifted 
  • Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela is released from prison 
  • March 2, 1990: Mandela is elected ANC deputy president
  • Dec. 10, 1993: Mandela is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • May 10, 1994: Inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa 
  • 1999: Steps down after one term as president 
  • June 8, 2013: Admitted to the hospital with a lung infection 
  • Dec. 5, 2013: Dies in South Africa 

All information from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

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John Fresen, a native South African who taught at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town until 1994 and lived in South Africa until 2005, knew Mandela personally.

"What a wonderful guy Nelson Mandela is," said Fresen, who taught statistics at MU. "Such determination and an incredible presence."

But Fresen said he thinks some of Mandela's methods and decisions were bad and sometimes disagreed with the "end justifies the means" strategies of Mandela's political party, the African National Congress.  

"He'll be remembered as 'Saint Madiba,'" Fresen said, referring to Mandela's commonly used clan name. "He's an absolute idol. Many people derived hope just through his name."

Fresen described Mandela as incredibly charming and jokingly quoted the song "You Did It" from the musical "My Fair Lady," saying Mandela oozed charm from every pore. When he walked into a room, people felt an immediate connection to him, Fresen said.

"He was an inspiration to people in South Africa, white and black alike, and to people around the world, too," Fresen said.

He said Mandela will be remembered for his determination, courage, temperance and great leadership skills. He also said Mandela was a prime example of someone who had no desire to exact revenge, even after the horrors he had suffered under the apartheid regime.

Charles Korr, professor emeritus of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, acknowledged that the transition from the apartheid regime to the African National Congress was not easy and was a difficult time in South Africa. 

"Mandela brought people together and helped put a lid on things, even when many of his supporters thought he made too many concessions to the very people who had used the apartheid system to terrorize the majority of the population," Korr said.

He cited three examples of Mandela using his ability to mollify tensions in South Africa and bring together a divided state:

  • After the murder of Chris Hani, who was seen as the likely successor to Mandela, racial tension in South Africa was boiling over, almost to the point of sparking a race war. Mandela went on national television and, though not yet president, made a presidential speech in which he asked people to forgive the crime. In doing so, he may have saved negotiations with the apartheid government.
  • During negotiations with the apartheid government, outbreaks of violence — often provoked by the government — were used as reasons to end negotiations. Mandela refused to let the violence get in the way of negotiations and would not let apartheid officials walk away from the table.
  • In 1995, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup — the inspiration of the film "Invictus" — Mandela supported the team, though he gained nothing from it politically. In South Africa, rugby was a "secular religion" for Afrikaners, and by supporting the rugby team, Mandela showed he was a leader for both blacks and whites.

Korr said that in the 1980s, if he'd been asked to guess which world event would happen without bloodshed — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union or the end of apartheid — he would have said the longest odds were against South Africa to make a peaceful transition to democracy.

In doing so, he "brought hope to millions. Not only in South Africa, but in sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world," said Ron Turner, who developed and directed the first 18 years of MU's academic exchange program with the University of the Western Cape.

Turner, executive vice president emeritus of the University of Missouri System, compared Mandela and his role in South African history to the American Founding Fathers. He said Mandela and the Founding Fathers suffered for freedom, took great risks, paid a high price and eventually were able to see their labors come to fruition.

Mandela also saw the process through to forgiveness, said Leszek Vincent, who grew up in South Africa and is now an adjunct assistant professor in the division of plant sciences at MU. He said he thinks Mandela will be remembered for the distinctly different model of political relations he practiced.

"He chose a different path," Vincent said, citing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of Mandela's ability to forgive. "He physically embraced his captors and extended the hand of reconciliation. His leadership is a rare example of such on this planet."

Vincent said he thought Mandela's death would be met with "overwhelming sadness" by the people of South Africa.

"He touched people everywhere," Vincent said. "Oppressed and oppressors alike. And he has done an incredible amount for the youth of the country."

He also said he thought Mandela's death would be met with reflection on South Africa's history, examining how far the country has come and where it needs to go. Vincent said that Mandela's death will leave a big gap in South African politics and that there is, and will be, a desperate need for leadership that builds on the values set out by Mandela.

This lack of leadership is one of the most pressing questions facing South Africa, said Rodney Uphoff, professor at MU's Law School and director of the University of Missouri South Africa Educational Program.

Uphoff was in Cape Town for much of Mandela's hospitalization over the summer. The distance from Cape Town to Pretoria, where Mandela was hospitalized, is roughly the same as the distance from Columbia to Washington, D.C. Despite the distance, Uphoff said, he still had a sense of how people were reacting from coverage by South African media.

Uphoff said that before Mandela's death, there was constant coverage of his hospitalization on television and in newspapers and that people seemed anxious but were hoping for him to pull through. He also said there was a constant media presence and a vigil outside the hospital in Pretoria where Mandela was being treated.

Uphoff compared Mandela's role in South Africa to that of Ghandi in India, though he said he thought Mandela was less controversial than Ghandi and was respected by people from all levels of South African society. 

Following Mandela's death, Uphoff said, he expected an outpouring of grief from people in South Africa, and possibly some political instability as elections approach in 2014. 

"Immediately after his death, nothing dramatic," Uphoff said of the political and social situation. "But long term, things are more uncertain. Without Mandela, will the ANC fall? Nobody knows for sure what will happen."

Supervising editors are Jeanne Abbott and Elizabeth Brixey.

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