What you might not have known about Nelson Mandela

Friday - 12/6/2013, 2:30am EST

The Associated Press

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.


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").


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."


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 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.


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.