Nelson Mandela: The miracle years

Posted at 5:36 PM, Dec 05, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-05 17:36:57-05

(CNN) -- April 27, 1994, was the crowning moment in the life of Nelson Mandela -- the day South Africa held its first elections open to citizens of every race.

His African National Congress party swept to power with 63% of the vote. F.W. de Klerk's National Party got 20% and the Inkatha party netted 10%.

In his victory speech, Mandela said: "Now is the time for celebration, for South Africans to join together to celebrate the birth of democracy.

"I raise a glass to you all for working so hard to achieve what can only be called a small miracle."

Many agreed it was a miracle -- from world leaders to ordinary South African voters -- considering the turmoil and segregation entrenched in South Africa just a few years before.

Mandela's compassion and political shrewdness helped bring about this change.

But most of all, it was the complete lack of bitterness he displayed for the 27 years he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime that enabled him to win over his divided nation and charm the world with his statesmanship.

Mandela and his government inherited a country devastated by decades of apartheid -- a policy of segregation and discrimination that aimed to keep black and white apart in every sphere of life -- as well as a black majority coming to terms with the fact that voting did not guarantee social and economic equality.

He introduced housing, education and economic development initiatives designed to improve the living standards of blacks.

He also made his mark on the international stage. During his five-year presidency, he received 73 heads of state or government and made 83 state visits outside the country.

Mandela worked to broker peace in neighboring African nations, including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He was involved in restoring order in Lesotho after its May 1998 elections triggered severe unrest, sending in South African troops who stabilized the situation and created a favorable climate for negotiations.

Mandela led the call for sanctions against Nigeria following the 1995 execution of writer and activist Ken Saro Wiwa and a number of other political prisoners.

And he played a leading role in resolving the impasse between the United States, the United Kingdom and Libya over securing the surrender of the two men charged in the Lockerbie bombing.

But Mandela often cut a lonely figure on his travels as his marriage to wife Winnie foundered. They divorced in 1996.

He was to find love again, with Graca Machel, the widow of former Mozambique President Samora Machel. They married on his 80th birthday in 1998.

In September of that year, he was awarded at a ceremony in Washington the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, becoming the first African to receive the honor.

President Bill Clinton said Mandela was awarded the medal not only because of his "10,000 long days" spent in prison but also for his "shining example" as a political leader since his release.

The last three years of Mandela's presidency were largely in the role of elder statesman as he gradually handed over the day-to-day governing of the country to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded him in 1999.

In his speech at a farewell banquet, Mandela again referred to the miracle of South Africa.

"South Africans from every sector had reached out across the divisions of the centuries and averted a bloodbath which most observers believed inevitable, so much so that our smooth transition was hailed widely as a miracle," he said.

"Our people have therefore confounded the prophets of doom. We are confident they will do it over and over again."