During the more than 27 years he spent in prison, his words could not be printed legally in South Africa or his face shown in public. But in all that time, his fame and reputation only grew, until he became the embodiment of the struggle against apartheid and the world's most celebrated political prisoner. Those who knew Nelson Mandela understood why. "He is a person of magnetic presence," says leading antiapartheid activist Cyril Ramaphosa. "If you are in a room with him, you immediately sense that you are with a person of unique greatness."

Many South Africans, both black and white, are praying he is all that he seems. President F.W. de Klerk, who finally released Mandela from Victor Verster prison last week, hopes Mandela will use his authority to help bring about a peaceful settlement of the country's long, ugly racial conflict. But Mandela cautions that any solution will not come easily. "Our struggle has reached a decisive moment," the 71-year-old leader told thousands of cheering supporters just hours after his release. "We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle."

Mandela has become the symbol of courage and principle—though very few of his followers know much about the early years of his life. Born in the rural village of Qunu, in what is now the black homeland of Transkei, he spent his days tilling fields and herding cattle and his nights listening to tribal elders talk of the time before the white man came to that part of South Africa. Even as a youth, Mandela showed signs of leadership. In 1930, after the death of his father, Henry Gadla Mandela—a farmer who was also the main adviser to the Paramount Chief of the Tembu tribe—12-year-old Nelson was sent to live in the chiefs Great Place, where his intelligence quickly marked him as the heir apparent who would someday rule the tribe.

But Mandela—whose tribal name, Rolihlahla, means "one who brings trouble upon himself'—instead chose the path of political activism. In 1940, while studying at Fort Hare College in the Eastern Cape, he was expelled for helping organize a strike protesting administration efforts to limit the power of the student council. The next year he headed for Johannesburg, where he worked briefly as a guard at a gold mine before landing a job as a clerk in a white law office. At the same time, he began studying for his correspondence law degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Along the way, Mandela married Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a nurse with whom he eventually had three children—son Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1970, son Makgatho, now 38, and daughter Maki, 35. But the marriage was troubled. Evelyn wanted her husband to concentrate on his career and forget politics, while Nelson felt deep anger at the discrimination—great and small—that he witnessed daily. In 1944 Mandela and two close friends, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, both now leaders of the black nationalist movement, formed the Youth League of the African National Congress.

"It was a time when we talked about nothing but politics," recalls Amina Cachalia, who helped organize protests with Mandela. "But there were times when merrymaking was going on. Mandela was a very likable person who made friends easily and liked to laugh and joke a lot." An avid amateur boxer, the 6'2" Mandela, who at one point weighed 245 lbs., would often go down to local gyms in Johannesburg and spar a few rounds with other heavyweights. He also began spending time with a social worker named Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, then 20, who was 16 years his junior. Mandela separated from Evelyn in 1955, and they were divorced two years later; Maki contends that her mother learned of the divorce in a newspaper article, which left lingering bitterness.

The courtship between Nelson and Winnie was far from routine. In December 1956 police arrested Mandela and 155 other activists and charged them with treason for staging strikes and protests in opposition to apartheid laws. Their marathon trial ended five years later in acquittal, but within months of the verdict, Mandela had gone underground to form the military wing of the ANC, which then launched a series of bombings on power plants, rail lines and other strategic targets. Thus began a life of separation for Nelson and Winnie, whom he had married in 1958 and who bore him two children, daughters Zeni, now 31, and Zindzi, 29. "He told me to anticipate a life physically without him, that there would never be a normal situation where he would be head of the family," says Winnie. "He told me this in great pain. I was completely shattered." Mandela was captured by police after more than a year on the run; while in jail on other charges, he was convicted of sabotage and treason in June 1964 and sentenced to life in prison.

Mandela was sent at once to Robben Island, a craggy, windblown Alcatraz near Cape Town harbor. For six months he and other inmates used sledgehammers to break rocks into gravel for the roads around the prison; later they were sent to work in the island's limestone quarry. Inevitably the ration of cruelty and indignity varied according to race. While Indian prisoners were issued long pants, socks and shoes, blacks received nothing but shorts—even during the harsh winters—though so-called politicals like Mandela did get sandals.

Mandela tried to make the best of the 18 years he spent on the island. Denied newspapers until 1980, he and his ANC comrades kept abreast of developments in South Africa through smuggled messages; in the evening they talked politics and proselytized new prisoners—so effectively that the place became known as Mandela University. Mandela also delighted in contemplating the island's stark natural beauty, breathing the fresh air and observing birds and sea life. According to Fatima Meer, the author of a Mandela biography, Higher than Hope, the rock formations in the quarry inspired him to study books on geology.

But there was no underestimating the psychological toll of confinement, relieved only by Winnie's visits. (Initially, she was allowed only a half hour with him every six months.) "Had it not been for your visits, wonderful letters and love, I would have fallen apart many years ago," he wrote her in a 1979 letter. "I pause here and drink some coffee, after which I dust the photos on my bookcase. I start with that of Zeni, which is on the outer side, then Zindzi's and lastly yours, my darling Mum. Doing so always eases the longing for you."

But later there were tensions in the relationship as well, largely because of Winnie's recent controversial activities. In a 1986 speech she endorsed the seizure and immolation of suspected police informants in the black townships. She also formed a bodyguard detail of unruly young toughs, known as the Mandela United Football Club, who were allegedly responsible for numerous beatings and the murder of a 14-year-old activist in Soweto. Though Nelson never publicly commented on the actions, he reportedly told Winnie to disband the gang, which she did, and he appealed to family friends to help "rectify" the situation.

There were other hardships as well. In 1982 authorities transferred Mandela to a maximum security block in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, apparently to prevent him from indoctrinating inmates at Robben Island. He spent much of the next six years without access to his political comrades and in 1988 was hospitalized with a severe case of tuberculosis. After he recovered, he was taken to the Victor Verster Prison Farm near Cape Town, where he spent the next two years. He resumed the strenuous regimen that he had followed during much of his prison life; each morning at Victor Verster, he would arise at 3:30 A.M. and exercise for two hours—lifting weights, doing push-ups, riding a stationary bicycle, skipping rope and jogging in place. He would then read through the morning papers and watch a TV news program, Good Morning South Africa.

At the same time, the South African government began signaling its desire to open negotiations over South Africa's future. Last year President de Klerk stepped up discussions between Mandela and members of his cabinet and started allowing the black leader visits with anti-apartheid activists. When De Klerk finally set Mandela free, on Feb. 11, the stirring sight of him walking out of Verster prison—gray and thin but commanding—triggered a wave of rejoicing across South Africa. "I was completely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm," Mandela said. "It is something I did not expect."

Having endured the rigors of martyrdom with consummate dignity, Mandela must now fill the awesome role of statesman with equal measures of skill, helping to bring democracy and equality to a deeply divided country. It is a task for which he has been preparing for the past 27 years, without any assurance that he would ever have the chance to attempt it. Now, at last, the moment has come.

—Bill Hewitt, Susan Hack in Johannesburg

  • Contributors:
  • Susan Hack.