In spite of that legendary fist-punching image, Nelson Mandela's first day of freedom was almost a disaster. While the world celebrated his release, Cape Town was in chaos. Drunken looters terrorized the waiting crowd, taking at least two lives—including one man who was kicked and stabbed to death in front of a television crew. When Mandela's handlers finally let him appear—more than four hours late—his lackluster speech disappointed not only for its hesitant delivery but for its tired rhetoric about the need to nationalize South Africa's mines. Within 24 hours, the market responded: sales by foreign investors wiped the equivalent of about $1 billion off share values on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. "He didn't necessarily miss the boat," one political commentator told me at the time. "But he did miss an opportunity for reconciliation."
Mandela rarely made that mistake again. The anti-apartheid icon, who turns 90 on July 18, is heart-wrenchingly frail now. At a recent London concert to honor his birthday, he struggled to walk onto the stage and had to follow prompts from his third wife, Graca Machel, to wave to his supporters. But as his voice grew stronger and he beamed his trademark smile from the Hyde Park stage, the magic of Madiba remained undimmed. I watched live coverage of that concert last month in South Africa, where it was national news. And when I saw Mandela segue from a tentative start into a charming speech, I was reminded of the emotional and political roller coaster of the 48 hours after his release.
When Mandela walked out of Paarl's Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990, he was as much phantom as legend. Even before he was jailed in 1962, South Africa's white minority government kept him out of the public eye through banning orders on his speech and movement. As a South African-born reporter covering apartheid's final years for NEWSWEEK, I had spent hours in the years before his release interviewing his attorney—one of the few people allowed to see him in jail—about what the aging Mandela looked like. I spent days waiting with my colleagues outside his final place of imprisonment in a warder's house to glean nuggets of news from his visitors. And when he finally walked out of jail on Feb. 11, 1990, I emerged from the Cape Town reception rally with a rib cracked by would-be muggers and limbs stinging from the shards of glass bottles thrown at the crowd.
Most people outside South Africa remember that day as a triumph; few wanted it spoiled by reports of unpleasant realities on the ground. Yet inside the country it aggravated the tension and uncertainty in a momentous week. Many of the country's white minority believed Mandela's speech—especially his refusal to renounce the African National Congress's "armed struggle"--would launch the civil war they feared. The celebrating black majority, for its part, mistrusted Mandela's description of white President F. W. de Klerk as a man of integrity. These events should not be glossed over for the sake of political correctness. Madiba, the clan name by which he is known, is rightly a living legend. Remembering his occasional missteps makes his legacy all the greater, because his success was never inevitable.
Mandela's turnaround came his second day out of prison. His postrelease press conference, held in the lush gardens of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's official residence in the tony white suburb of Bishopscourt, could easily have been another letdown. Tempers were running short as aides used rubber hoses as rope lines to hold cranky, sleep-deprived journalists and diplomats at bay. Mandela was confused by the furry microphones of the TV journalists—his only previous television interview had been in 1961--and at first he could not identify the equipment being held in front of his face. But his articulate and reasoned responses were a pitch-perfect mix of informality and sharp analysis. Endearingly delighted to meet the journalists whose bylines he recognized from newspapers in prison, his message of racial inclusion was unequivocal. "Whites are fellow South Africans," he said. "We want them to feel safe and know we appreciate the contribution they have made to this country." Even more remarkable was his insistence that he was not bitter about spending more than 27 years of his life in jail. It was all so impressive that we did something reporters aren't supposed to do: we applauded.
Mandela cemented his successes as he traveled the world in the weeks and months that followed. By the time he was elected president in 1994, he had become the first truly unifying national symbol in a country that had no common anthem or flag. Whites who had grown up under a government that demonized Mandela as a terrorist communist proudly bought key rings and souvenirs featuring his portrait. And in 1995, when many in the country's new black elite were demanding that Afrikaners change the name of their beloved Springbok rugby team, he achieved a new peak of white popularity by donning the Springbok jersey to celebrate the team's World Cup victory.
Conciliatory gestures like the jersey were one of the hallmarks of Mandela's leadership. He made a point of exonerating some of his bitterest enemies from the segregation years by visiting the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the Afrikaner prime minister who devised apartheid, and by paying a courtesy call to P. W. Botha, the finger-wagging former president who lacked the courage to release Mandela unconditionally before a stroke forced the Afrikaner president out of office. On a less symbolic level, Mandela also publicly forgave Percy Yutar, the prosecutor who secured Mandela's lifetime jail sentence for sabotage. His approach didn't meet with universal approval, especially among left-wing blacks who felt he was too generous to whites. But in a country where whites still dominated the economy and where right-wing groups had the power to destabilize the new government, the example set by his forgiveness was both necessary and farsighted.
Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999, underscoring his commitment to democracy by refusing to follow the president-for-life example of many other leaders on the continent. Behind the scenes, he skillfully helped to avert a potentially damaging succession battle when Thabo Mbeki was chosen as his heir. When Mbeki took over the presidency, Mandela was careful to observe the protocol of maintaining public silence on domestic political issues. Nonetheless, he remained a voice of conscience and did take the unusual step of publicly disagreeing with Mbeki over his refusal to acknowledge the gravity of South Africa's AIDS crisis. (Mandela's only surviving son, Makgatho, died of AIDS in 2005.)
Mandela surely cannot be pleased with Mbeki's failure to use his influence to pressure Robert Mugabe to prevent the tragedy unfolding in neighboring Zimbabwe and the fact that his administration is mired in scandal. Nor can Mandela be pleased by last year's election of Jacob Zuma as the new African National Congress leader. Zuma will become the country's next president if he can beat looming fraud and corruption charges over an arms deal, but the scandal surrounding his appointment has resurrected some of the disturbing social and political fault lines Mandela worked so hard to overcome. Although race relations in today's South Africa are probably less fraught than its history would suggest, rising crime, higher costs and uncertainty about Zuma are fueling tensions among white and black alike. While it's not clear how much influence Mandela may be exercising behind the scenes to influence his fractious party, his increasing frailty makes it unlikely that his massive moral authority will be enough to reshape South African politics yet again. None of that, however, will detract from the legacy and leadership he has shown both his country and the world. On the day of his release, I remember asking a black resident of Paarl, the beautiful wine-growing town near the Victor Verster prison, why he had come to watch Mandela leave jail. "Well, it's like during the time of Jesus Christ," Jeffrey Plam told me. "People went to him when they wanted to heal the sick." Mandela may not be that kind of miracle worker, but his contribution to healing a sick society is immeasurable.