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Wednesday, October 28, 1998 Published at 13:46 GMT

Nelson Mandela: Prisoner turned president

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Unusually for an African leader, after four years as the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela enjoys support from most of his people.

The prisoner-turned-president was born in 1918 in South Africa's Eastern Cape, the son of a tribal chief.

He qualified as a lawyer, and along with two friends, formed the League of the African National Congress in 1944. He faced treason charges along with 155 other political activists in 1956 but was acquitted five years later.

Black resistance grew in South Africa with pass laws, which restricted where blacks could live and work, the focus of much resentment. Working behind the scenes, Mr Mandela organised strikes and demonstrations.

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which left 69 black demonstrators dead, forced the ANC underground. Nelson Mandela was caught by police after a year on the run and was convicted of treason in June 1964.

He began a life sentence at Robben Island where he wrote: "In prison you come face to face with time. There's nothing more terrifying."

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge captures the historic moment when Nelson Mandela walked free
Winnie Mandela, who he married in 1958, campaigned for her husband's release.

Twenty-seven years later, and following pressure from the international community, the ANC leader was freed.

Call for reconciliation

As he cast his vote in the 1994 elections which would make him president, Nelson Mandela carried a message of forgiveness and reconciliation and spoke of his dreams of "one nation".

Nelson Mandela's 'one nation' speech
"This is for all South Africans an unforgettable occasion. It is the realisation of their hopes and dreams that we have cherished for decades. We are starting a new era of hope, of reconciliation, of nation-building," he said.

With this optimism and hope, and his willingness to forgive his captors and forge a new start, Nelson Mandela set an example for his countrymen.

And with his call for reconciliation, he set the tone for the work of the Truth Commission.


Mr Mandela's marriage to Winnie ended when she was convicted on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault. Afterwards, he courted and married on his eightieth birthday Graca Machel, widow of the late president of Mozambique.

Mr Mandela has recently become more of a figurehead, relinquishing day-to-day powers to his chosen successor Thabo Mbeki. Mr Mbeki is expected to take over as president when Mr Mandela steps down in April next year.

The president is said to be impetuous, quick of temper and at times authoritarian. But his has been the unique achievement of steering South Africa out of a dark past towards reconciliation and true nationhood.

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Internet Links

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Long Walk to Freedom - The autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Text of Nelson Mandela's inaugural address

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In this section

Truth Commission report: At a glance

Truth report: Key points

TRC findings: Buthelezi

TRC findings: PW Botha

TRC findings: Winnie

TRC: The facts

Mandela addresses truth report ceremony

Seeking the truth: Timeline

South Africans reconciled?

Antonette's story

The voice of 'Prime Evil'

Desmond Tutu's long crusade

Winnie Mandela: Fallen political heir

P W Botha: The 'Great Crocodile'

FW de Klerk: Overseer of transition