That led to trials, and ultimately his treason conviction that, in 1964, sent him away to what he, and so many others, thought would be a lifetime of imprisonment, most of it on the notorious Robben Island, where the government believed he would rot away and die.
Yet those 27 years spent in prison (most of them at the notorious Robben Island) transformed Mandela from a local political figure into an international legend. Confined, he endured the harsh labor and total physical separation from his family while plotting, in secret, his return to power.
Meanwhile, the world took up his cause. Anti-apartheid movements sprung up everywhere, including the United States, even drawing in a heretofore indifferent college student named Barack Obama into politics for the first time. Artists and entertainers joined the cause, too, exposing Mandela’s story and making his quest for freedom a unifying movement.
All of that pressure worked, and the apartheid regime crumbled once Mandela was set free, leading to his election as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Yet it was what he did with the rest of his life that made him a man for all time.
No one could have blamed Nelson if he was bitter, angry and hurtful toward those that had put him in jail and killed his people. But he knew, better than anyone, that revenge would only increase the cycle of violence and recriminations, and eventually destroy the country he loved so much.
So instead of payback, Mandela sought forgiveness. He met with the opposition and brokered peace, plus formed a new government. He invited his former jailer to his inauguration, and met with many of the most extreme apartheid backers, much to his own supporters’ consternation.
And while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he formed didn’t meet all expectations, those that stepped forward, black and white alike, to confess their crimes helped South Africans rise out of its dark past and find some common ground.