Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

From Prison to President


Nelson Mandela, pictured with his wife Winnie, after his release from prison.

It’s 1995, in South Africa. After four decades of apartheid, Nelson Mandela is now president of the country. And one of the things he decides to do as president is to contact all the wives of the former apartheid leaders. These are the leaders he had fought against. Who had put him in prison and killed so many of his people. So, Mandela invites their wives…to lunch.

Nelson Mandela is remembered today as an icon of reconciliation. He brought peace to a country where peace had seemed unlikely. And he did it partly through symbolic staged media events, like this lunch.

Another thing about Mandela’s legacy – he is remembered today as the personification of non-violence. Like Ghandi. One youth leader in South Africa told me Mandela’s example inspired the current student movement in the country to protest using non-violence.

Which… is interesting.

Because Mandela was the guy who started the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. It was called Umkonto Wi-Sizwe, which meant Spear of the Nation. They even bombed government buildings. By the time Mandela went to prison in 1964, he was considered a terrorist. Not just in South Africa but in many countries around the world. Including the United States.

Mandela served 27 years in prison. And over that time, he came to be seen not as terrorist but as an international symbol for the struggle against apartheid.

For those 27 years, the public never saw a photograph or heard his voice. He was invisible.  Preserved in amber. So when was released in 1990, nobody really knew what they were going to get. The apartheid regime thought that once people saw this old frail and fallible man – he was 72 years old when he was freed – Mandela would be as they said: ‘demythologized.’

So…yeah…they got that part wrong.

Four years after Mandela was released from prison, he was president. And yet, those four years were also among the bloodiest and most painful for all South Africans – black and white – as they struggled toward the transition to majority rule. On our podcast we have been revisiting chapters from our series Mandela: An Audio History. Today we bring you Chapter Five: From Prison to President.



Radio Diaries is part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best story-driven podcasts on the planet. This week’s episode is sponsored by Smithsonian Channel’s Million Dollar American Princesses.

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