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Even strenuous labor in the lime quarries and unrelenting isolation didn't break Mandela's spirit. During his long years in a cell barely large enough for sleeping, Mandela lost his eldest son and his mother—and wasn't allowed to attend either funeral. His wife, Winnie, who fought to keep his name alive, was often arrested and beaten. Yet from his first hours of confinement, he demanded that the prison guards respect him and refer to him only as Mandela or Mr. Mandela. As he and his comrades worked side by side in the quarries, he encouraged them to read and study, and he himself devoured books because he wanted what he believed to be freedom's most powerful weapon: education. In 1985, after more than two decades in prison, Mandela shocked the world when he rejected an offer to be released if he would renounce violence. His reason for declining: He refused to leave prison under conditions—and he would not allow himself to be singled out from the men who'd worked alongside him.

But Mandela was indeed singled out when government officials moved him to private quarters in another prison in 1988 so they could hold private negotiations for his release. Responding to the international campaign to free Mandela that had erupted in the 1980s, then-president F.W. de Klerk finally announced to Parliament on February 2, 1990, that he would lift the ban on the ANC and release the man whose long imprisonment had made him a mythical figure. Nine days later, on February 11, as millions around the world looked on in elation and disbelief, Mandela passed through the prison gates a free man.

Yet soon after Mandela's release, tribal and racial violence flared up, in part because whites rebuffed efforts for a free election. In 1992, with the death toll climbing, Mandela met with de Klerk, hoping to ward off a civil war; in the following months he urged South Africans to seek not revenge but reconciliation. For their efforts to unite the country, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. They accepted the award jointly. The next year, people of every race were allowed, for the first time, to vote in a democratic election. For four days, millions of blacks lined up across South Africa to exercise the right for which Mandela had been willing to give his life. A candidate himself, Mandela cast his vote, something he later told reporters made him feel like a "complete man." After a landslide victory, Mandela became South Africa's leader—and he appointed de Klerk his deputy president.

As Mandela's political career reached its height, his marriage crashed. Nearly 30 years of separation from Winnie were too taxing a burden on their relationship. In 1992, amid reports of his wife's infidelity and political scandals, Mandela made one of the toughest choices of his life: to leave Winnie. "To part with a lady with whom you had enjoyed some of the best moments in life, who had suffered and worked hard for your liberation and who had given you two beautiful children—that was not an easy decision," he later told me. After an intense period of grieving and isolation, he found love again in Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique's founding president, Samora Machel. In a secret ceremony on Mandela's 80th birthday, Graça gave Mandela what she called a present: her hand in marriage. The next day, at an extravagant birthday bash filled with celebrities from around the world, Mandela introduced his bride.

Next: Oprah visits Nelson Mandela at home

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