Prisoner who became South African president celebrates 90 years

By staff writers
July 18, 2008

Nelson Mandela, who played a crucial role in ending apartheid in South Africa, is 90 today. After a series of public appearances around the world over the past few weeks, he will spending the day at home with his family.

Mr Mandela was jailed 27 years as a member of the banned African National Congress (ANC) before he was made the country's first black leader. His journey from prisoner to president started with involvement in armed struggle to overthrow the evils of apartheid, but ended up securing a largely peaceful transition to plural democracy.

His friend and long-term ally Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is among those who have paid tribute to Mandela.

He has been joined by former opponent President de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize along with Mr Mandela for his role in dismantling a racists system over which he once presided.

De Klerk told reporters yesterday: "After his inauguration, Nelson Mandela used his personal charm to promote reconciliation and to mould our widely diverse communities into an emerging multicultural nation."

After stepping down as South African president in 1999, Nelson Mandela became a globe-trotting ambassador for South Africa and campaigned for action on HIV/AIDS - an issue he says he wishes he had done more on when he was president.

He retired from public life to spend more time with his family and friends in 2004.

Correspondents say that the birthday event in his home village of Qunu in south eastern South Africa was supposed to have been a quiet affair, but there are now a variety of events planned including a local football festival, a concert and a dinner for 500 guests on Saturday.

Fellow Robben Island prisoner Mac Maharaj told the BBC that the event which sheds most light on Nelson Mandela's character was his response to the killing of popular ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993 - someone he knew well and had worked very closely with.

Maharaj believes that if Mandela had called for an insurrection in response it would have been unstoppable but would have resulted in much bloodshed.

Instead, Mandela went on television in South Africa to call for calm and commitment to democracy and peaceful change.

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