RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. It takes a moment to realize just what made former South African President Nelson Mandela so much more memorable than other leaders. He was not the only man to fight for racial equality. He was not the only man jailed for his beliefs, nor the only man who came out of jail to lead his country, nor even the only African leader to capture the world's attention as the colonial era came to an end.
What is almost unequaled is the way that Mandela finished the job. He was widely seen as leading his country wisely, promoting reconciliation and he then stepped aside with grace, living up to the expectations of supporters around the world. His death at 95 brought strong reactions and we have coverage this morning from NPR's Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to ending the racially oppressive apartheid system and creating a democratic, inclusive South Africa. First in the 1950's Mandela helped lead the African National Congress's non-violent campaign against white minority rule. Later he led the ANC's armed struggle against that system. Eventually he was captured and charged with treason. Against the advice of his lawyer, he gave a four hour closing argument at his trial. In it he detailed the sufferings of blacks under apartheid and he denounced the system as degrading and inhumane.
He told the court that his actions with the armed wing of the ANC had been in pursuit of a free democratic society in which people of all races are treated equally.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NELSON MANDELA: It is an idea for which I hope to live for and to see realized, but my Lord, if it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.
BEAUBIEN: The court found him guilty and in 1964 he began serving a life sentence on Robben Island. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela became an icon of the injustice of the apartheid system. He was the global face of the anti-apartheid movement. When the calls to free Nelson Mandela were finally answered in 1990, parts of the country were on the verge of civil war.
Whites who still controlled the economy and South Africa's vast natural resources were threatening to abandon the country. Blacks who'd been oppressed and impoverished for generations were tired of waiting for change. At his inauguration as president in 1994, he called for national reconciliation and for a new country in which all citizens could prosper.
(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURATION SPEECH)
MANDELA: Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity - and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom ring. God bless Africa. I thank you.
BEAUBIEN: Mandela was the steady hand, the calm elder statesman who guided South Africa out of apartheid. He was a hero to millions of blacks but he also won over whites. Despite his early affinity for socialism, Mandela stuck to a capitalist economic model and protected property rights.
He stepped down after one term as president to allow a peaceful democratic transition of power. In retirement Mandela worked to negotiate peace deals in Central Africa. He built schools in rural parts of his country and raised awareness about HIV around the world. In 2004, at the age of 86, he held a press conference to announce that he was stepping back from public life.
He said that in retirement he was finding that too many causes were demanding too much of his time. Don't call me, I'll call you, he said. But even as he withdrew still further from public life, Nelson Mandela served as the conscience of South Africa. While he was alive, politicians feared nothing more than possibly drawing the wrath of the father of the nation. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.