The world knows Nelson Mandela as a man who forever changed the course of modern history and who will surely continue to leave his mark long after his death Thursday at the age of 95.
You may know that he spent 27 years in prison, that he led South Africa out of apartheid and that he served as his nation’s first Black president.
But did you know about the role of rugby in his legacy? His musings on Valentine’s Day? The lessons he taught sympathetic prison guards during his time behind bars?
Here are some details from Mandela’s life that you might not have known.
FATHER OF THE NATION
Nelson Mandela’s place as South Africa’s premier hero is so secure that the central bank released new banknotes in 2012 showing his face. Busts and statues in his likeness dot the country and buildings, squares and other places are named after him. At Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church, a center of protests and funeral services for activists during the apartheid years, there is a stained glass image of Mandela with arms raised. South African Airways even emblazoned his silhouetted image on planes.
A $1.25 million project to digitally preserve a record of Mandela’s life went online last year at http://archive.nelsonmandela.org. The project by Google and Mandela’s archivists gives researchers — and anyone else — access to hundreds of documents, photographs and videos. In one 1995 note, written in lines of neat handwriting in blue ink, Mandela muses on Valentine’s day. It appears to be a draft of a letter to a young admirer, in which Mandela said his rural upbringing by illiterate parents left him “colossally ignorant” about simple things like a holiday devoted to romance.
At his inauguration, Mandela stood hand on heart, saluted by white generals as he sang along to two anthems: the apartheid-era Afrikaans “Die Stem” (“The Voice”) and the African “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”).
A NEW LIFE
When Mandela went free after 27 years, he walked hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie out of a prison on the South African mainland, and raised his right fist in triumph. In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he would write: “As I finally walked through those gates … I felt — even at the age of seventy-one — that my life was beginning anew.”
A WAYS TO GO
Mandela is widely credited with helping to avert race-driven chaos as South Africa emerged from apartheid. But he could not forge lasting solutions to poverty, unemployment and other social ills that still plague his country. Though relatively stable, it has struggled to live up to its rosy depiction as the “Rainbow Nation.”
Since apartheid ended, the country has peacefully held four parliamentary elections and elected three presidents, and Mandela’s African National Congress said in 2013 the economy had expanded 83 percent since 1994. But corruption in the party has undercut some of its early promise, and the white minority is far wealthier than the Black majority, partly fueling violent crime.
Mandela’s last public appearance was in 2010. Bundled up against the cold, he smiled broadly and waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium during the closing ceremony of the World Cup, an event that allowed his country to take the world spotlight. Mandela had kept a low profile during the monthlong tournament, deciding against attending the opening ceremony after the death of his great-grand daughter in a traffic accident following a World Cup concert.
MANDELA THE RECONCILER
Mandela was born the son of a tribal chief in Transkei, a Xhosa homeland. Many South Africans of all races call him by his clan name, Madiba, which means “reconciler,” as a token of affection and respect.
THE HARSHER SIDE
Despite his saintly image, Mandela could be harsh. When Black journalists mildly criticized his government, he painted them as stooges of the Whites who owned the media. Whites with complaints were sometimes dismissed as pining for their old privileges. To critics of his closeness to Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadhafi, Mandela insisted he wouldn’t forsake supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Mandela eventually turned to fighting AIDS, publicly acknowledging in 2005 that his son, Makgatho, had died of the disease. The nation, which has the most people living with HIV in the world at 5.6 million, still faces stigma and high rates of infection.
Mandela celebrated holidays and hosted dignitaries among the huts of rural Qunu in a replica of the prison guard’s home where he lived during his final days of confinement. Ever self-deprecating, Mandela maintained he chose to recreate the home from Victor Verster prison because he was already familiar with it and wouldn’t “have to wander at night looking for the kitchen.” But his fellow South Africans saw the decision as an inspiring way to transform the old structure of imprisonment into one of freedom. Many of Mandela’s close relatives live in Qunu, and the family burial plot is just yards from the home.
‘A DEMOCRATIC AND FREE SOCIETY’
A statement Mandela made during his 1964 sabotage trial revealed his resolve in the fight to end White racist rule. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people,” Mandela said. “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.”
Two months later, he and seven other defendants were sentenced to life in prison.
UNITED BY RUGBY
In 1995, Mandela strode onto the field at the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg wearing South African colors and bringing the overwhelmingly White crowd of more than 60,000 to its feet. “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” they chanted as the president congratulated the victorious home team. Mandela’s decision to wear the Springbok emblem, the symbol once hated by Blacks, conveyed the message that rugby, so long shunned by the Black population, was now for all South Africans.
Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president in 1994. At the close of his inauguration speech, he said: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”
“Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa!”
Mandela was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town for most of his time behind bars. He and others quarried limestone there, working seven hours a day nearly every day for 12 years, until forced labor was abolished on the island. In secret, Mandela — inmate No. 46664 — wrote at night in his tiny concrete-floored cell.
It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, but go-betweens ferried messages from prisoners to anti-apartheid leaders in exile. Prisoners gathered in small groups for Socratic seminars, and Mandela offered lessons on the movement to guards he thought would be open to persuasion. All the guards were White; all the prisoners were Black, mixed race, or Asian.
‘LOOK INTO YOURSELF’
“People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety,” Mandela says in one of the many quotations displayed at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. “You learn to look into yourself.”
NELSON AND WINNIE
Nelson Mandela divorced Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996, ending a powerful political partnership that had lasted through decades of struggle. As he remained behind bars, she became an activist leader in her own right, leading marches with a fist raised and building a base among the radical wing of the African National Congress. Madikizela-Mandela lost influence as Mandela pushed the ANC along a moderate course.
They had grown apart politically by the time he emerged from prison, and soon the personal toll of the years of physical separation became apparent. But after Mandela retired from public life and focused on the family that had been relegated to second place during his struggle against apartheid, the mother of two of his daughters was welcome alongside his third wife at Christmases and birthdays.
After his retirement from the presidency, Mandela regularly worked from an office in the recently refurbished Johannesburg building that houses the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. The office includes framed photographs of Mandela in healthier times with his wife, Graca Machel, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, fellow activist Walter Sisulu, and others.
A boxing glove, cricket bat and a British police helmet are among the gifts on display. Glass cases show penned messages in books given to Mandela from people including Nadine Gordimer, the South African author and winner of the Nobel literature prize in 1991. Cornel West, an American civil rights activist, addressed his book, “Democracy Matters,” to: “Bro’ Nelson Mandela.”