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Johannesburg — Nelson Mandela, who emerged from more than a quarter century in prison to steer a troubled African nation to its first multiracial democracy, uniting the country by reaching out to fearful whites and becoming a revered symbol of reconciliation around the world, died Thursday. He was 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement in a somber televised address to the nation Thursday. "Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we will bid him farewell," Zuma said.
Long before his release in 1990, at age 71, Mandela was an inspiration to millions of blacks seeking to end the oppression of more than four decades of apartheid. His continued imprisonment spawned international censure of South Africa's white-minority government.
Successive white South African leaders had portrayed him as a dangerous terrorist. But when Mandela was freed after 27 years, he surprised many by saying he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.
Preaching reconciliation, he guided the nation through four years of on-again, off-again constitutional talks, using his moral authority to address demands of an impatient black majority while winning over suspicious whites.
Mandela and the man who released him, President Frederik W. de Klerk, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. A year later, Mandela, the son of a tribal chief, succeeded de Klerk after a historic, peaceful election where millions of blacks cast the first votes of their lifetimes.
Under Mandela the economy grew, a constitution guaranteeing equality and press freedom took root, and a commission unearthed many dark secrets of apartheid and granted amnesty to both whites and blacks accused of political violence.
During his five-year term in office, Mandela's formal dignity and his skill in building consensus made him a rarity on a continent beset by corrupt dictators. Although his strongest supporters were deeply distrustful of whites, who controlled much of the country's economy, Mandela made a determined — and largely successful — effort to ease white fears.
As his term drew to a close, he decided not to stand for re-election in 1999 and voluntarily stepped aside — a move almost unheard of among African leaders. His party, the African National Congress, again won the national elections and chose Mandela's vice president, Thabo Mbeki, as his successor.
After leaving the government, Mandela's worldwide stature continued to grow. He became active in the fight against AIDS; a son died of the disease in 2005. He also traveled widely in support of human rights and efforts to end poverty and spoke out vehemently against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, at age 85, Mandela announced his retirement from public life.
As a leader of the African National Congress, Mandela was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, which used state violence and repressive laws to segregate and oppress South Africa's black majority.
More than 20,000 people died in civil and political strife under apartheid, and thousands more were jailed or tortured. In the years after Mandela was banished to Robben Island, a penal colony in frigid waters off the coast of Cape Town, the nation faced anarchy, while international economic and cultural sanctions made Africa's richest and most powerful country a global pariah.
In 1988, Mandela turned 70 and, a month later, contracted tuberculosis. His illness was successfully treated, but government officials worried they were being held hostage by Mandela's imprisonment. Releasing him could spark a revolution, but his death in prison might do the same.
The government launched an elaborate plan to demythologize Mandela and "release him in steps." That year, he was transferred to a nearby prison farm, where he met secretly with government ministers to draw up a framework for discussions between the government and the ANC. In February 1990, de Klerk freed Mandela.
The first years after Mandela's release were rocky. About 10,000 people were killed from 1990 through '93, many of them in violence between competing black political forces.
In April 1994, South Africa staged its first democratic elections and the ANC swept to power in the new multiracial Parliament, which elected Mandela the nation's first black president. He was 75 years old.
As president, Mandela brought together right-wing whites and militant blacks under his banner of nonracial democracy. He won broad support for an ambitious program of reconstruction and development. Unemployment, crime and racial conflict persisted, but the president's popularity helped keep the country together.
Mandela's personal life, though, had begun to fall apart after his release from prison. His commitment to a unified South Africa put him at odds with Madikizela-Mandela, the second wife who had stood beside him throughout his incarceration but became increasingly radicalized. They separated in 1992 after she was convicted of orchestrating the kidnapping and assault of several township youths, one of whom was killed, by her bodyguard retinue.
Then, as president, Mandela forced his estranged wife's resignation as deputy minister of arts, culture, science and technology after she was embroiled in a series of shady business deals and other scandals. He finally sued for divorce, but she refused to settle out of court.
In March 1996, the president took the stand in a packed Johannesburg courtroom to publicly accuse her of adultery with an ANC aide. Speaking stiffly, Mandela said that after his release from prison, his wife had never entered their bedroom while he was awake.
"I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her," he said. The judge granted the divorce and longtime friends, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lamented the demise of the relationship.
"We wanted them to have a kind of fairy-tale ending," Tutu said.
Two years later, on his 80th birthday, Mandela married Graca Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique whose husband had died in a plane crash.
"I don't regret the setbacks I've had because, late in my life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me," Mandela said of Machel. "She has changed my life."
An absent father and husband most of his life, Mandela had as many as four grandchildren living with him during his final years as president. Besides Machel, he is survived by a daughter, Maki, from his first marriage; two daughters from his marriage to Madikizela-Mandela, Zindzi and Zenani; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Nelson Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a hamlet in South Africa's Transkei region, now the Eastern Cape. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, a nobleman and chief in the small Thembu tribe, named him Rolihlahla.
"I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future," Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," "but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered."
Polygamy was a tribal custom, and his father kept four wives and had 13 children.
Mandela's father was a stern, stubborn man with a strong sense of justice. Shortly after Mandela was born, his father refused to acknowledge the authority of a white magistrate. The official accused him of insubordination and took away his cattle, land and tribal chieftaincy.
Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was forced to move her children to nearby Qunu. Her new kraal–a homestead surrounded by a ring of branches — had three mud-walled huts, one each for cooking, sleeping and storage. The family slept on mats on the ground, grew its own food and wore only blankets.
By the time he was 5, Mandela had been sent to watch cattle and sheep on the rolling green hills. He was surrounded by family, was steeped in tribal custom and lore and developed a love of the outdoors. He recalled a happy, carefree childhood.
Unlike his father — a traditional healer who never learned to read or write — Mandela was baptized into the Methodist Church and at age 7 was sent to a one-room school. Mandela left his mother's side at 9, after his father died. The acting Thembu tribal regent had become his guardian, and Mandela moved to his far grander kraal.
At the tribal court, he learned a lesson that would be fundamental to his own leadership. A ruler, the regent told him, should be like a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."
Like his father, Mandela was groomed to counsel the Thembu king. He was sent to local English missionary schools and the University College of Fort Hare, then the only center of higher education for blacks.
"I was 21, and I could not imagine anyone at Fort Hare smarter than I," he recalled.
He soon quit the student council to protest a minor point of school policy. He then defied the headmaster's order to rejoin and was expelled. Like his father, Mandela refused to back down on a matter of principle.
Disgrace was followed by shock. Back home, the regent had arranged for him to marry a local girl. Mandela stole some oxen to sell for traveling money and ran away to the so-called city of gold: Johannesburg.
It was 1941, and the former mining town was emerging as a modern city. Mandela was shortly introduced to Walter Sisulu, a local black leader and businessman.
The meeting changed their lives, and South Africa's future.
Sisulu arranged for Mandela to complete his college degree and to clerk at a white law firm. Soon after, Mandela enrolled in the law school at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was the only black law student in the class of 1946. He would complete his law degree from a correspondence college while in prison.
Sisulu, a member of the ANC, helped channel Mandela's anger. Mandela joined the organization and, while living at Sisulu's home, met and married his mentor's niece, Evelyn Ntoko Mase. The couple had four children before separating in 1955 and divorced three years later.
Mandela wrote later that he was unable to pinpoint "when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle." But he knew why: "A thousand slights, a thousand indignities," he said, had produced "an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."