But talks were already underway, with Mandela being spirited out of prison to meet a white Cabinet minister.
On Feb. 11, 1990, inmate No. 46664, who had once been refused permission to leave prison for his mother's funeral, went free and walked hand-in-hand with Winnie, his wife. Blacks across the country erupted in joy — as did many whites.
Mandela took charge of the ANC, shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk and was elected president by a landslide in South Africa's first all-race election the following year.
At his inauguration, he stood hand on heart, saluted by white generals as he sang along to two anthems: the apartheid-era Afrikaans "Die Stem," ("The Voice") and the African "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("Lord Bless Africa").
To black South Africans expecting a speedy new deal, Mandela pleaded for patience. The millions denied proper housing, schools and health care under apartheid had expected the revolution to deliver quick fixes, but Mandela recognized he had to embrace free market policies to keep white-dominated big business on his side and attract foreign investment.
For all his saintly image, Mandela had an autocratic streak. When black journalists mildly criticized his government, he painted them as stooges of the whites who owned the media. Whites with complaints were dismissed as pining for their old privileges.
He denounced Bush as a warmonger and the U.S. having "committed unspeakable atrocities in the world." When asked about his closeness to Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadhafi despite human rights violations in the countries they ruled, Mandela explained that he wouldn't forsake supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle.
With his fellow Nobelist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed human rights offenders of all races to admit their crimes publicly in return for lenient treatment. It proved to be a kind of national therapy that would become a model for other countries emerging from prolonged strife.