Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a powerful symbol of opposition to apartheid and, until Sunday, one of the world's most celebrated political prisoners, has been a faceless, voiceless legend to black South Africans for more than 27 years.
Mandela's public life ended August 5, 1962, when he was imprisoned and later sentenced to life at the end of a landmark trial with eight other senior leaders of the African National Congress for plotting the violent overthrow of the minority white government.
The sentence -- allowing no remission for such politically inspired crimes -- silenced the eloquent voice of a patient lawyer who turned his followers to violent underground opposition against apartheid after decades of peaceful protest had left the system unchanged.
Until his release Sunday, an entire generation of black South Africans had neither heard the 71-year-old Mandela speak, nor seen him, relying since last year on a color portrait sketched from recollections of his visitors, and decades-old photographs.
With his release from Victor Verster prison, northeast of Cape Town, he can now superimpose a human figure on that legend.
But even though his face was a blur to youthful revolutionaries of violent black resistance in 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1985, and the alternative non-violent Gandhi-style tactics of 1989, his name was a banner.
Mandela was born into traditional Thembu tribal royalty near the town of Umtata in the rural black homeland of the Transkei on the Indian Ocean coast on July 18, 1918. At the age of 12, his father, a headman with four wives, died and he was raised by his cousin, the acting paramount chief.
Though born a prince and future chief, Mandela bucked authority early. He rejected his right to royal chieftainship, living up to his traditional Xhosa tribal name Rolihlahla, which means 'stirring up trouble.'
After graduation from a Methodist boarding school, Mandela enrolled in 1938 at Fort Hare, a segregated rural college, where his interests turned to student politics. He began a lifelong friendship with activist colleague Oliver Tambo, presently the ANC president-in-exile.
Expelled from Fort Hare in 1940 for participation in a strike, both Tambo and Mandela went to Johannesburg. Mandela, who avoided an arranged tribal marriage in the Transkei, found work on the mines as a security guard. Black rights campaigner Walter Sisulu -- later to become the ANC secretary-general -- befriended Mandela and found him work in a law firm.
In 1941, he completed a bachelor of arts degreee by correspondence and then proceeded with his law studies at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. In his spare time, he trained as a boxer. In 1944, he married Sisulu's cousin, Eveline, and they had three children before their separation in 1955.
With the help of Sisulu, Mandela and Tambo teamed up to launch a youth wing of the ANC, which effectively took over the movement's leadership in 1949 and instituted a program calling for strikes, civil disobedience and boycotts to pressure the apartheid government.
Having orchestrated a fundamental change in tactics, Mandela and Tambo were elected to the ANC's executive body and Sisulu was named secretary.
Appointed leader of a national civil disobedience campaign, Mandela and others broke curfew laws on June 26, 1952, in their first act of defiance. For that, Mandela served his first brief prison term.
Six months later, for alleged violations of the Suppression of Communism Act, Mandela received a two-year suspended sentence and a banning maintained by authorities for the next nine years. The banning orders restricted Mandela to Johannesburg city limits and barred him from public gatherings.
On the first renewal of his banning order, Mandela resigned officially from the ANC leadership, yet continued to lead the movement covertly, preparing it to operate underground when it became necessary.
At the same time, Mandela set up an attorney's practice in downtown Johannesburg with Tambo, forming the first black legal partnership in the country.
Responding to ANC moves to create a post-apartheid society, including the adoption in 1956 of the non-racial Freedom Charter declaring one-man, one-vote, Mandela was arrested in December 1956 and charged with high treason with 155 other political leaders.
It took a five-year trial to acquit them. Two years into the trial, Mandela married his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, an attractive aggressive medical worker 18 years his junior with whom he has two daughters.
During the trial, in 1959, the ANC organized a campaign against the laws requiring blacks to carry identity documents, the so-called pass laws. But the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress took the limelight by calling for mass protests on the issues, leading to a crisis that would drive the ANC into forming a military wing.
On March 21, 1960, a pass law protest led to a confrontation with nervous police officers at a police station in the township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg. At least 69 black protesters died in police fire and scores were wounded.
The government responded by invoking a state of emergency, banning the ANC and the PAC and detaining thousands of activists, among them Mandela. Both organizations remained outlawed until Feb. 2 this year, when President Frederik de Klerk lifted their ban and announced other reforms, including that Mandela would soon be released.
From April 1961, after his acquittal in the treason trial, Mandela went underground, where his political philosophy continued to undergo a radical transformation. On Dec. 16, 196l, the outlawed ANC launched its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), with a strategy of bombing government and military targets.
Eight months later, Mandela was captured, convicted for incitement and illegally leaving the country, and jailed for five years.
On June 11, 1963, police raided a farm near Johannesburg, uncovering the ANC's underground headquarters and arresting several top activists to fill the docket alongside Mandela in the nation's most sensational political trial.
On June 12, 1964, Mandela, Sisulu and six others were sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of the trial in which Mandela gave a four-hour address arguing that government-imposed restrictions had left blacks no alternative but to engage in an armed struggle.
'It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of protest,' Mandela said. 'The government had left us with no other choice.'
Mandela held true to his conviction that violence had been spawned by the state and refused an offer of release in 1985 in exchange for renouncing violence.
Few visitors outside family members gained access to Mandela until his transfer from Robben Island, offshore from Cape Town, in 1982 to the port city's Pollsmoor Prison. At the same time, an international Free Mandela campaign began to take shape.
Virtually every visitor marveled at the dignified 6-footer more easily taken for statesman than prisoner, physically well, mentally keen and well-informed.
'Throughout our meeting, I felt I was in the presence not of a guerrilla fighter or racial idealogue, but of a head of state,' reflected Samuel Dash after visiting from Georgetown University in 1985.
In December 1988, Mandela was transferred to a ranch-style house on a prison farm outside Cape Town, after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.
His contact with the outside world began to increase dramatically as speculation on his release intensified and talks increased with the government on the possibility of negotiations to peacefully end the country's racial conflict.
Still, little was ever known about the personal Mandela, who remained accessible only to his wife, youngest daughter Zindzi and close friends during jail visits.
But in July 1989, coinciding with his 70th birthday, anti-apartheid lawyer and family friend Fatima Meer published an autobiography based largely on Mandela's letters to relatives and friends.
They showed a concerned and doting father, worrying that Zindzi abandoned poetry writing, cautioning her against going bare-breasted at a traditional gathering in Swaziland and urging her to keep up her studies.
Mandela wrote to Winnie of his dreams of revisiting places remembered from his past, old friends and the rural countryside of his childhood.