Mandela’s early years, before he really became a major international figure, are complex, and included things like him helping to found a militant organization that was involved in bombing campaigns throughout South Africa. That’s why, even to this day, you’ll sometimes hear him referred to as a terrorist. He basically was, at least for a while.
But far more interesting are Mandela’s years after he got out of prison (where he was being held because of the whole terrorism thing). As a kid, I remember boycotts against South Africa’s monstrously racist regime, and controversy involving, if I remember right, the purchase of marble used to help make the Seattle bus tunnels. I also remember being very confused, and remain very confused, about apartheid and why it happened. I mean, what were the whites so afraid of?
At any rate, apartheid went away, and Mandela was released from prison, having denounced violence. He then went on to become, in many ways, the most important president South Africa has ever had. He wasn’t the first, but he was the first to be democratically elected in a real representative election. He was also the one who helped pave the way for a peaceful transition from white power to a more integrated structure. For an example of how this can go horribly wrong, just look to South Africa’s neighbor, Zimbabwe.
Mandela is a near perfect example of how someone can start off on a very good path, fall off that path, and still be redeemed in the end. He became a true light and inspiration to the world, and he will be sorely missed.