Nelson Mandela: The political prisoner who would change a country

Nelson Mandela's name has long been synonymous with "hero". But when most of the world first heard of him, he was an inmate in South Africa's most notorious prison.  CBS News correspondent Martha Teichner reported from South Africa during some of Mandela's many years in prison, and covered the day few thought would ever come.

I remember the earth pounding … like the heartbeat of a nation springing to life. They rejoiced -- a people finally daring to exhale, to celebrate the impossible actually coming true. 

After being imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela greeted the world.

"I greet you all. In the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all…Amandla!"  Mandela addressed the crowd.

 This was the man who had made history and challenged a world to confront itself.

"The demand in this country is for a nonracial society," said Mandela.

Mandela: Rebel. Prisoner. Leader. Inspiration.

When I first came to South Africa in 1987, "apartheid" was the way of life. Blacks had no vote, no power, no say. It was a brutal racist system that in 1948 was made the law of the land.

"The laws were unjust laws and they did not oblige obedience," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He remembers how it began, as Mandela rose in the ranks of leadership of a civil rights group called The African National Congress, the ANC.

"They were the revolutionaries of their day. They were the wild young men," said former Time magazine editor Rick Stengel, who would spend countless hours in private conversation with Mandela while collaborating on Mandela's autobiography.

"Mandela went to Johannesburg as a young man and was treated in the terrible way that young black men were treated in the 1950s. I think this had a huge effect on him," said Stengel.

Mandela was in the forefront of growing resistance by the ANC, which began to protest the hated laws, requiring blacks to carry passes restricting where they could go.

Then, a galvanizing moment caught the world's attention. On March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville, the peaceful civil rights movement was pierced with bullets.

Walter Cronkite reports: Police mounted on tanks opened fire… 69 natives were killed; 176 wounded. Most of the victims were shot in the back.

It was against a blood-red backdrop that Nelson Mandela took up arms.

"It is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks," he said in a 1961 interview.

When the ANC became a more radical movement, Nelson Mandela became a fugitive, and in 1962, would be arrested in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. He was charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government. What unfolded was a crucible known as the Rivonia Trial.

Teichner: The climax of the Rivonia trial was Nelson Mandela's speech from the dock.

Stengel: Yes. It's one of the great political statements, I think, in human history.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony," Mandela said in his speech. "… it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Robben Island, the Alcatraz of South Africa. 

"This is where we broke stones, using four-pound hammers...seated on slabs…" political prisoner Mac Maharaj said of Robben Island in an interview with "60 Minutes".

Maharaj spent 12 years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

"He had to hold his emotions tightly to himself. He could not divulge to the authorities … a weakness in his armor," he said.

With each passing year, Mandela's resolve sharpened.

"Like a stiletto," Maharaj explained, "flexible, sharp but pointed to the task."

When Nelson Mandela was sent to prison in 1964, he left behind his wife, Winnie, and their two young daughters.


"It was just very poignant because he lost that whole side of his life. He never was really able to be a father to his children or a husband to Winnie. That was, in some ways, one of the great tragedies of his life," Stengel explained.

In his absence, Winnie took up the mantle of leadership and protest.

By the 70s, the revolution that Mandela had helped ignite had intensified. And this time it felt different.

Said the Archbishop, "We had a new breed of children … who were not going to be intimidated."

In 1976, the township of Soweto became their battleground and graveyard; 575 people were shot dead in the Soweto uprising, many of them children.

Over the next decade, government tactics would grow beyond brutal.  There was the so-called Trojan horse incident -- soldiers, hidden in a truck, emerged and opened fire on civilians. It was murder in broad daylight.

Still, the massacres continued for years. There were countless innocent victims.

Finally, by the mid 1980s, the world had seen enough. The United States and other countries imposed economic sanctions against South Africa. Mandela sensed the government was finally vulnerable.

Beginning in 1985, prisoner Mandela secretly negotiated with the apartheid government what became a road map for a new South Africa.

He reached the masses of people through the voice of his daughter, Zindzi.

"My father says your freedom and mine cannot be separated….I will return. Amandla!" Zindzi said in a 1985 speech at Soweto stadium.

Pressure to free Mandela built in and outside South Africa.

And then in February 1990, South African President F.W. de Klerk made a historic announcement: "the government has taken a firm decision to release Mr. Mandela unconditionally."

A moment forever seared into our memory. After more than a quarter century behind bars, Nelson Mandela  stepped into the light.

Mandela, at 71,emerged looking not like a broken prisoner, but like a king.

"He had won. But Mandela is famous for his smile, but that smile is not there," Maharaj said. "And I believe he was deeply aware of the enormous challenge and responsibility that now lay on him."

"We will reach the goal of liberating the black people of this country within our lifetime," Mandela said on the stage.

Nelson Mandela was free, but the fight for freedom was far from over.