Forged in a small cell, a power that touched the world

Last updated 12:00 07/12/2013

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A song and a sporting tour brought Nelson Mandela's struggle to life for many New Zealanders.

It was the 1980s and the African National Congress leader had already spent two decades in jail for his fight against the minority white regime in South Africa.

Eighteen of them were spent in a tiny cell on the Robben Island penal colony off the coast of Cape Town.

English band The Special AKA's 1984 song Free Nelson Mandela struck a chord around the world, and particularly in New Zealand where it reached number one.

It was undeniably catchy, but it also came only three years after the country had been plunged into divisive chaos during the Springbok rugby tour, bringing a new awareness to the injustices of apartheid. "Are you so blind that you cannot see?" the song asked.

Gradually, inevitably, the eyes of the world were opened and Mandela finally walked from prison in 1990.

The story could have easily ended there, and for most it would have.

Mandela said during his 1964 trial that he cherished the ideal of a free and democratic society in which all people live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

But after 27 years behind bars on politically motivated charges, how could such sentiments not be crushed by the injustice, twisted into despair, bitterness or revenge? Somehow Mandela forged the opposite. He emerged with optimism, forgiveness and a determination to bridge the explosive racial divide that threatened to slide into full-scale civil war.

He was 71, but he looked much younger, and he said he felt like his life was beginning anew. He set out with smiles, colourful shirts, inspiring words and a seemingly inexhaustible energy.

As South Africa's first black president, his slight frame held a whole new country together while it set about the painful process of healing.

The transition has not been smooth, and it has not yet fulfilled Mandela's vision.

His successors have lacked the same unifying appeal and poverty among the black population is still rife.

But he gave his country a new start that seemed impossible in the 1970s and 80s.

His spirit of peace and reconciliation also spread far from South African shores, inspiring people around the world in a way only a very few have done.

"He taught us that to respect those with whom we are politically or socially or culturally at odds is not a sign of weakness, but a mark of respect," said retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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