The world contains many thousands of political prisoners but in the last 50 years only one of them, Nelson Mandela, has turned his imprisonment into a tool to create political change and national liberty.

He accomplished this by intelligence, guile, patience, tolerance for his enemies — and a display of such majestic dignity he commanded the sympathy of the world, even the grudging sympathy of the white South Africans from whom he won power.

To a harsh, cold world he brought a strange and refreshing sweetness. News from Africa was almost always bad, just as it is today, but news involving him always carried a grace note of hope. His gift to  everyone was an unquenchable optimism, maintained in the face of appalling conditions. That, and quiet good humour.

AFP/Getty ImagesFormer South African President Nelson Mandela celebrates his 86th birthday with his wife Graca Machel, left, and ex -wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, right, in his rural home town of Qunu in the Eastern Cape Province on 18 July 2004.


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He was not the innocent social democrat many of us would have liked him to be. He tolerated the Communist connections of colleagues in the African National Congress (ANC) and at certain times saw serious virtue in Communism. Nor was he a Gandhi. He conspired in acts of violent sabotage when he saw no other way. But at the crucial moment, he knew what to do.

In 1962, after many years of organizing his fellow blacks to oppose apartheid, he was charged with inciting workers to strike. At that moment, age 44, he saw his responsibility and the shape of his future. He realized his strength was symbolic, as the personal embodiment of the moral opposition to racism. He declined to call witnesses in his defence and turned his plea of mitigation into an eloquent political speech.

As he recalled three decades later, “In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.”

He was sentenced to five years in prison. While there he learned police had found a cache of ANC plans at a hideout in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. Mr. Mandela was implicated, and was now to go on trial for his life, charged with sabotage and planning to overthrow the government by violence.

This time, his statement to the court drew even more attention — “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP/Getty ImagesSouth African President Nelson Mandela congratulating South Africa's rugby team captain Francois Pienaar before handing him the Webb Ellis Cup after the 1995 Rugby World Cup final match between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg.

The London Observer published his speech under the headline “Why I am prepared to die.” The University of London Union made Mandela its president. In St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, nightly vigils for Mr. Mandela began. The World Peace Council awarded medals to all the accused. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, rather than death. His hardest work had begun.

Now he was literally “in the fortress of the enemy,” perhaps forever, and whatever he did had to be accomplished from behind bars. He was jailed on Robben Island, a place he made famous across the world, now turned into a shrine, museum and tourist site. At first he was classified as a low-grade convict, Class D, meaning he had one visit and one letter, censored, every six months. He slept on a straw mat in a tiny, damp concrete cell. He developed tuberculosis.

For decades, against every obstacle the government could put in his way, he made steady progress. He did more than anyone else to make the South African government infamous. Supporters around the world took up his cause, boycotted South African events and banned South African imports.

F. W. de Klerk, Mr. Mandela’s enemy and in the end his collaborator, paid tribute to him years later. Mr. Mandela had concluded there would be no winners if the country continued sliding into conflict. “Without the knowledge of the exiled African National Congress leadership,” Mr. de Klerk wrote, Mr. Mandela “entered into a discreet dialogue with the South African government — which was reaching a similar conclusion.”

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer South African president and Nobel peace prize laureate Nelson Mandela, centre, poses with the Web Ellis cup held by South African coach Jake White, left, and South African captain John Smit on October 27, 2007 at the Mandela foundation in Johannesburg, as part of the celebrations with the South African rugby union team after their victory of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.

The bargaining went on for years because Mr. Mandela refused to accept the government’s half-hearted offers of a truce. He declined to renounce violence until the government did the same. He wanted freedom first, for him and the banned ANC: “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” That decision cost him years more in prison but enhanced his moral stature.

On Feb. 2, 1990, Mr. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and announced Mr. Mandela’s imminent release. In 1994 Mr. Mandela became president of South Africa, the first to be elected in a free vote of all races. He oversaw a new constitution and created the Truth &Reconciliation Commission. In 1999, he retired.

GUY TILLIM/AFP/Getty ImagesIn 1995, South African President Nelson Mandela chips a rock in the quarry where he endured hard labour for 12 of his 19 years in South Africa's notorious prison on Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town.

His vision of equal rights for all races was widely accepted but he had little success in creating a new generation of politicians to follow him. In South Africa today youth unemployment is at world-record levels and so is the HIV/AIDS plague.

Among his legacies was an element of modesty that gave every sign of being genuine. “I was not a messiah,” he said, “but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

Ordinary in some ways, perhaps, but also a glowing beacon, heartening people everywhere who long for a world of justice.

National Post

AFP/Getty ImagesANC supporters give the thumb up as a prison van with anti-apartheid militants go to Johannesburg's courthouse, 28 December 1956.

WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty ImagesFiles: African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, wearing leopard skin traditional clothes, releases a white dove for peace at a rally to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the massacre of 69 black demonstrators by the police, 21 March 1994, in Sharpville, south of Johannesburg.

AFP/Getty ImagesSouth African President Nelson Mandela goes on a walkabout round Trafalgar Square in London 12 July 1996 on his way to South Africa House, where he made a speech from the balcony to the crowds.

WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty ImagesSouth African President Nelson Mandela takes the oath 10 May 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria. Mandela was elected president at the first session of the country's post-apartheid parliament, 09 May 1994 in Cape Town.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Nelson Mandela, 94, former president of South Africa, at his home in Qunu, South Africa, on August 6, 2012.

YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty ImagesThe former South African president Nelson Mandela wears a traditional Xhosa hat 11 February 2000, during a ceremony at his village of Qunu.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer South African president and Nobel peace prize laureate Nelson Mandela laughs as he receives a kiss from one of his grandchildren on August 02, 2008 after giving his speech during the Mandela 90th birthday ANC celebration at Loftus stadium in Pretoria, South Africa.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty ImagesNelson Mandela, South Africa' s former President and a former boxer, wishes Philip Ndou good luck in his upcoming BWC lightweight divison fight against the current world champion, Floyd Mayweather in Johannesburg in October 2003.

FileUS President Bill Clinton, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela look out the jail cell window where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisioner on Robben Island.

STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty ImagesUS President Bill Clinton, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela look out the jail cell window where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisioner on Robben Island.

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images fileSouth African President Nelson Mandela, right, greets Cuban leader Fidel Castro as he arrives for the opening of the 12th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Durban on September 2, 1998.

AFP/Getty ImagesU.S. pop star and entertainer Micheal Jackson, right, poses with Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela, left, in Kwazulu-Natal on July 20, 1996. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest.

AP fileANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison, 11 February 1990 in Paarl.

AP Photo/Martin Cleaver,files In this picture taken July 4, 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, left, shakes hands with ANC deputy leader Nelson Mandela inside 10 Downing Street, London, prior to talks and a luncheon. Nineteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africans are still passionately divided over whether Margaret Thatcher helped or hindered the demise of the cruel system of white rule and prolonged the jailing of Nelson Mandela.

REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya/FilesSouth African President Nelson Mandela and American pop star Whitney Houston smile for photographers in Johannesburg in this November 10, 1994 file photo. Singer and actress Whitney Houston died at age 48.

ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty ImagesA picture taken on November 28, 2003 shows former South African President Nelson Mandela addressing a press conference in front of his former prison cell on Robben Island, off Cape Town.

TOMMY CHENG/AFP/Getty ImagesSouth African President Nelson Mandela addresses some 40,000 youths at the Toronto's Skydome (Air Canada Centre) launching "Canadian Friends of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund" 25 September in Toronto.

Win McNamee/Getty Images for the Clinton FoundationFormer U.S. President Bill Clinton, left, embraces former South African President Nelson Mandela following remarks by Clinton during a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation July 19, 2007 in Johannesburg.

John Major / The Ottawa CitizeNelson Mandela, left, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, during Mandela's 1990 visit to Ottawa.

JEAN JAURESHO/AFP/Getty ImagesThis handout picture taken on December 1993 in South Africa shows former French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy , left, speaking with South African President Nelson Mandela, centre, during a meeting. Mauroy died at the age of 84 yearsin 2013.

AFP PHOTO /Thomas CHENGSouth African President Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel Mandela with some of 40,000 youths during the launching ceremony of the "Canadian Friends of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund" at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi flashes the "V" sign as he stands with South African President Nelson Mandela 19 March 1999 at the end of their speeches at the Libyan parliament in Tripoli.

AFP PHOTO Dave CHAN South Africa President Nelson Mandel and his wife Graca Machel wave to the crowd during a welcoming ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Canada, 23 September. AFP PHOTO Dave CHAN (Photo credit should read DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Michelly Rall/Getty ImagesA Nelson Mandela murial hangs high at the Cape Town Civic Centre as part of the Nation wide prayers being held for the frail statesman on June 14, 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. The former South African President and leader of the anti-apartheid movement is spending a seventh day in a hospital and is reported to be responding better to treatment for a recurring lung infection. This is Mandela's fourth time in the hospital since December of 2012.

DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty ImagesSouth African President Nelson Mandela, left, waves as Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, right,applauds 24 September prior to his address to Parliament in Ottawa, Canada. Mandela is on a three-day state visit to Canada.

MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty ImagesA picture taken on June 12, 2013 shows the first passport held by the former Statesman Nelson Mandela and the Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medal in his former office at the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory.

Dominic Lipinski/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer South African president Nelson Mandela, second left, and his wife Graca Machel, left, meet Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, in central London, on June 25, 2008.

Kevin Van Paassen/National PostNelson Mandela speaks at Ryerson University as he and wife Graca Machel accepted their honory doctorate ceremonies at Ryerson University November 2001.

ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty ImagesAcclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, left, and former South African President Nelson Mandela chat on September 12, 2002 prior to Achebe receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature and delivering the third Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty ImagesA file photo taken on December 10 1993 shows Nelson Mandela, left, President of the African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa's last apartheid President Frederik de Klerk shaking hands after being awarded with the Nobel Peace Prizes during a ceremony in Oslo.

AFP PHOTO/ NICOLAS ASFOURI WPA/POOLSouth Africa's former President Nelson Mandela, right, meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing street in London 26 November 2004.

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty ImagesSouth Africa's former President Nelson Mandela waving as he arrives to attend the 2010 World Cup football final Netherlands vs. Spain at Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued the following statement upon the death of Nelson Mandela, former President of the Republic of South Africa:

“With the death of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen. Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the former Government of South Africa, for his part in the struggle that would ultimately end the system of apartheid.

“Despite his long years of captivity, Mr. Mandela left prison with a heart closed to calls for a settling of scores. Instead, he was filled by a longing for truth and reconciliation, and for an understanding between all peoples.

“He demonstrated that the only path forward for the nation was to reject the appeal of bitterness. His forbearance was legendary: his magnanimity spared all South Africans incalculable suffering.

“Nelson Mandela’s enduring legacy for his country, and the world, is the example he set through his own ‘long walk to freedom.’ With grace and humility, he modelled how peoples can transform their own times and in doing so, their own lives.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, Laureen and I extend our condolences to Mr. Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, his entire family and all citizens of South Africa. Canada, a nation that granted Mr. Mandela honorary citizenship in 2001, mourns with you and the entire world today.”

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