Nightly News   |  December 05, 2013

Brian Williams: Proof 'one life can make a difference'

For millions who loved him -- in the modern country he formed and around the world, he was the hope and the light of the world.  Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. NBC’s Brian Williams reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> let's take a moment here and look back at this life in the public realm at least that started as a fighter against apartheid. then as a prisoner of the system. next, as president. nelson mandela lived a truly remarkable life.

>> to deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. [ applause ]

>> nelson mandela called his life a long walk to freedom, a struggle to end south africa 's racist system of apartheid. as a young lawyer and activist he initially advocated peaceful resistance unt the 1960s sharpville massacre.

>> the police fired point blank into the crowd.

>> reporter: south african police killed scores of anti-apartheid demonstrators. for nelson mandela the it was a turning point.

>> many people see it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and nonviolence against a government whose reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people.

>> reporter: mandela 's african national congress , the anc, was banned. he bail an outlaw but refused to back down. arrested in 1962 , mandela was charged with sabotage and with attempting to violently tenced ow the government. to life in prison . for years, for decades, the struggle for justice in south africa continued with the imprisoned nelson mandela as its symbol. at times he was forced to break rocks in the hot sun for hours at a time. the government offered mandela freedom if he would renounce violence. he refused.

>> today marks the 25th year behind bars for nelson mandela .

>> reporter: south africa became an international outcast. facing sanctions, boycotts, growing political pressure .

>> nelson mandela should be released to par tate in the country's political process.

>> reporter: rock concerts for the cause were broadcast around the world. hey mandela hey mandela

>> release nelson mandela .

>> reporter: in 1989 south africa 's hard line president p.w. boata resigned replaced by f.w. declerk who began to dismantle apartheid. the ban on the anc was lifted. on february 11 , 1990 , nelson mandela walked to freedom.

>> nelson mandela , free at last, and back among his people.

>> i greet you all in the name of peace.

>> reporter: 27 years in prison had not weakened mandela 's resolve.

>> the struggle will go on as long as the government has not responded to our satisfaction.

>> reporter: he also urged restraint, even forgiveness, telling blacks to, quote, throw their guns into the sea and reassuring anxious whites.

>> we want them to feel safe.

>> reporter: mandela 's courage and sacrifice were recognized around the world. in america, he was welcomed as a hero. [ cheers ]

>> reporter: mandela and declerk were awarded the nobel peace prize in 1993 . the following year in the first mixed race election in south africa 's history, nelson mandela was elected president.

>> today is a day like no other before it.

>> reporter: we were the first to interview him on the first morning as president-elect. mandela tempered south africa 's joy when he said healing his country would take time.

>> it cannot be done overnight. it is going to take a year, two years, even as much as five years.

>> so help me god. [ cheers and applause ]

>> reporter: from enemy of the state to head of state, nelson mandela 's walk to freedom became a journey shared by his entire nation.

>> i have never been so excited and hopeful in my life in south africa as i am now.

>> reporter: years later, nelson mandela paid a return visit to his former prison cell , this time accompanied by president bill clinton who later presented him with the congressional gold medal . mandela stepped down as president in 1999 , but he lived long enough to see the united states elect its own first black president .

>> so help me god.

>> reporter: in 2011 he was paid a visit in south africa by first lady michelle obama who brought along first daughters malia and sasha. admired around the world and revered at home, nelson mandela 's south africa embraced a multi racial future and reentered the family of nations. he leaves a legacy of freedom and proof that one life can make a difference.