December 31, 1990 12:00 PM

Last Feb. 11, prisoner No. 446/64 walked through the gates of South Africa’s Victor Verster prison farm and into the spotlight of history. After 27 years in confinement—during which it was illegal, in his own country, to publish his words or even his picture—Nelson Mandela, 72, was at last free to speak in public. “Amandla!” he shouted, with upraised fist, to the ecstatic crowd that awaited him. In his native Xhosa tongue, the word means “power.”

During his imprisonment, Mandela, the invisible presence, attained the status of mythic hero, the very embodiment of the black liberation struggle. Following his release, the son of a minor Tembu chief was received like a head of state as he traveled triumphantly across five continents. Returning to South Africa, he has carried the burden of impossible expectations with quiet dignity as he struggles to lead his 40 million countrymen into a peaceful democratic future.

Now the euphoria that followed Mandela’s release has given way to somber reality. While he has persuaded his African National Congress and the South African government to talk about negotiating a new constitution, black factions vying for power have engaged in murderous battles. And right-wing whites have vowed to defend apartheid by force. Mandela himself has warned that “it is a mistake to think that a single individual can unite the country.” But it just may be that no one else can.

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