On February 11, 1990, South Africa's Nelson Mandela walked free after spending twenty-seven and a half years in prison-more than a third of his adult life. A delirious throng of well-wishers, numbering more than 100,000, greeted him in Cape Town with chants of "Viva Mandela," to which Mandela responded with a clenched-fist salute and an address that began with thanks to "friends, comrades, and fellow South Africans" for their "tireless and heroic sacrifices." Ordinary black South Africans had not heard the voice of their anti-apartheid hero, or even seen what he looked like, in a generation.
Release of "the prisoner of the century" captured headlines around the world. The seventy-one-year-old Mandela had been sentenced to life in prison on June 12, 1964, for conspiracy to overthrow the government of South Africa and its policies of white supremacy, known as apartheid. In apartheid South Africa, blacks had no rights: they could not vote, own land, move freely from one place to another, or live in "white" areas; and black children attended schools grossly inferior to those for whites.
Initially, Mandela had tried peaceful means to attain equal rights for South Africa's black majority, advocating civil resistance, speaking out, organizing strikes and rallies. However, when the government did not reform, but responded with violence by killing women and children, Mandela and other leading activists turned to armed struggle, carrying out sabotage against non-human targets such as power stations arid government buildings.
This was all a far cry from Mandela's humble beginnings as a herdboy in a small village. As a boy, he was often not sure of himself. He cared little for the outside world and rarely challenged authority. But when he grew up, Mandela bravely devoted his life to the cherished ideal of "d democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities." Four years after Mandela's release from prison, that cherished ideal began to fake shape, when he became the first president of a democratic South Africa, serving as a symbol of peace, unity, and change, even in the face of enormously difficult social and economic challenges. A democratic South Africa is one of the twentieth century's greatest achievements, and its native son. Nelson Mandela, is one of the world's most beloved statesmen.