Nelson Mandela's unique journey from prisoner to president

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Nelson Mandela at The Dorchester hotel in central London in 2008. Credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire/Press Association Images

There will never be another leader like Nelson Mandela. He was unique and that's no cliché. From prisoner to president, the moral centre of his nation, the glue that held together a country teetering on the brink of racial war, he was towering figure, an inspiration to leaders across the world. In an age when politicians are deeply distrusted, he was a man of utter integrity who did what he said.

There are those who think of him, not as the statesman of his later years, not as a freedom fighter against a racist regime, but as a terrorist. And it is true that in the early 1960's after years of peaceful but unsuccessful protest, after the Sharpeville massacre when scores of protesters were shot dead by police, he chose armed conflict. But few now criticise Mandela's decision to embrace it.

Nelson Mandela speaking on stage at the South Africa Freedom Day concert in Trafalgar Square, London. in 2001. Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

History will remember him as the greatest African, certainly the greatest South African and one of the towering figures of the late Twentieth Century.

As the country's current President Jacob Zuma said, announcing his death, "Nelson Mandela brought us together ...our nation has lost its greatest son, our people have lost a father ...this is the moment of our deepest sorrow."

Nelson Mandela and The Queen ride in a Mall, London Mall, London, on his state visit to Britain in 1996. Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images


It isn't just that he became his country's first black leader at the age of 77. He did so after an extraordinary personal and political struggle, during which he spent 27 years in jail, 18 of them under the harshest conditions, breaking rocks and working in a lime quarry at Robben Island Prison. But it was his conduct in the later years of his imprisonment and the first years of his freedom that marks him out.

He not only forgave his jailers, he became the personification of reconciliation in his country.

Nelson Mandela with the Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at Westminster London in 2003 Credit: Chris Young/PA Wire/Press Association Images

When he became President in 1994, many were predicting civil war; convinced that some whites in a country they had ruled for a century would not accept a black leader and would choose racial war instead. Mandela held his nation together. He changed his country and changed the world's perception of race.

Nelson Mandela pictured in his first televised interview in 1961 Credit: ITN

“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that everyone should aspire to,” President Obama said less than an hour after his death, describing Mr Mandela as an “influential, courageous and profoundly good” man who inspired millions, including himself, to a spirit of reconciliation.

Both men served as the first black leaders of their nations and both won the Nobel Peace Prize. But the American president has shied away from comparisons, saying his own sacrifices would never compare to the ones that Mr Mandela endured. Obama says he drew inspiration from Mandela -his first political action was to protest against apartheid.

And he is not alone. Leaders around the world look to and admire Mandela's courage, stubbornness, resilience, defiance and, above all, his moral grace. Obama said he was a "profoundly good" human being.

Nelson Mandela in London during 1962. Credit: PA Wire

Some of the images of Mandela are iconic; his fist in the air, as he is released from jail and celebrating the victory of his Rainbow nation in the Rugby World cup. His words resonate down the ages; before being jailed for decades he spoke of his ideal of a multi-racial South Africa; "if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die".

And now he is dead. Born in 1918 to a tribal chief, he rose to become a leader himself. His tribal name means "troublemaker" and he made plenty of trouble. His book was called "A Long Walk to Freedom" and now that long walk is over.

We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.