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Nelson Mandela Dies

By Nicky Broyd
WebMD Health News

Dec. 5, 2013 -- Nelson Mandela, the man who presided over the birth of a democratic South Africa and who is often referred to as a “secular saint,” has died at age 95 after a lengthy illness.

In a life that represented the triumph of the human spirit, Mandela spent 27 years behind bars and came to symbolize the fight against apartheid, a system of racial segregation introduced in South Africa by the ruling white National Party in 1948. It meant people of color were treated as third-class citizens, shut off from good housing, education, and jobs, and denied access to many beaches, parks, hotels, and restaurants.

Originally fought using a policy of passive resistance, the fight against apartheid eventually became an armed struggle. Mandela, leader of the revolutionary wing of the African National Congress (ANC), was arrested and charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government. At the end of his trial he was sentenced to life in prison, where he remained until 1990.

The era of apartheid formally came to an end on April 27, 1994, when Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in his life. At midnight on the evening before voting, a ceremony in Johannesburg marked the end of decades of minority rule.

From dawn to dusk the next day, the lines at the polling stations were long as blacks were allowed to vote for the first time. The ANC went on to win, Nelson Mandela became South Africa's president, and the new “rainbow” nation was born.


While a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela was forced to undergo hard labor in a lime quarry. There was no running water in the prison cells, and prisoners were segregated by race, with black prisoners receiving the fewest rations. Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "The authorities liked to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced -- between the unpalatable and the inedible."

He wrote that in the early evening, “We again received mealie pap porridge, sometimes with the odd carrot or piece of cabbage or beetroot thrown in but one usually had to search for it. If we did get a vegetable, we would usually have the same one for weeks on end, until the carrots or cabbage were old and mouldy and we were thoroughly sick of them. Every other day, we received a small piece of meat with our porridge. The meat was usually mostly gristle.”

Considering this diet and the fact Mandela spent so much of his adult life in prison, he enjoyed remarkably good health.


Mandela talked in his autobiography of having a “history of high blood pressure.” In 1988, less than a month after his 70th birthday while held at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, he described a bad cough that he couldn’t shake off. He was transferred to a nearby hospital where he had 2 liters of fluid removed from his chest and was diagnosed with the early stages of tuberculosis. The doctor agreed with Mandela that his damp cell probably contributed to the illness.

Six weeks after being admitted to the hospital, he was transferred to a clinic that had never before had a black patient. He said, “The clinic was extremely comfortable and for the first time I actually enjoyed a hospital convalescence.”

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