When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990, after spending 27 years behind bars, no one knew what to expect.
"The general attitude at the time was a lot of nervousness, people didn't know what his attitude would be when he came out of prison," said Wailuku resident Byron Warner, who was born and raised in South Africa but has been living in America for the past two decades. "Was there going to be a big uprising? Many people in the ANC (African National Congress) were calling for retribution against white people. Whites were moving out of South Africa because they were scared."
Warner was just a teenager when Mandela was released from prison, attending an all-white high school in the "whites only" city of Turban at the time.
"When Mandela came out of prison, he showed his true colors immediately and said we need to unite the country. He truly did bring the country together when it could've gone a completely other way . . .
"For someone who was in prison 27 years and wants reconciliation and to bring people together is a testament to who he was as a human being," Warner said.
One of the most iconic moments in South African history Warner remembers, which are also the same moments captured in the film "Invictus," was when Mandela, as president, donned the South African Springboks jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup at a time when rugby was considered a "white man sport" and the springbok was considered a symbol of apartheid.
"Black leadership wanted to get rid of the national rugby team, but Mandela went against the wishes of his party and said we need to unite the people and not shun this symbol," said Warner, who remembers watching televised footage of the game. "He really stuck his neck out when he . . . walked out onto the rugby pitch in front of the 45,000 predominately white people wearing the Springboks jersey, and the whole crowd roared and cheered."
It wasn't always so. Before his imprisonment, Mandela co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961 and had close ties to the ANC, which was declared by the South African government as a terrorist organization. He was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state in 1962 when he led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government, which for years had used legislation to keep blacks from having equal political or economic power.
After serving more than 27 years behind bars, Mandela was released after an international campaign lobbied for his freedom. He became South Africa's first black president just four years later in the country's first multiracial election. In the year following the dismantling of apartheid, he worked to ease tensions between black and white South Africans.
Over the years, Mandela has become recognized in South Africa as "the father of the nation" and a global icon, garnering the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Peace Prize and other honors.
Mandela died Dec. 5 at age 95 after months of being in and out of the hospital reportedly due to a recurring lung infection. His body was buried today at the small Easter Cape village of Qunu, where he spent much of his childhood.
Memorial services attended by global foreign leaders, including President Barack Obama, have been held over the last 10 days in South Africa.
"All my friends back home are remembering him, so many friends on Facebook have changed their profile pictures to Nelson Mandela," said Gary Green, another Maui resident who was born and raised in Turban, South Africa. "I cannot say enough about Nelson Mandela. He was one of the most amazing people around. He's absolutely well-loved by almost everyone in South Africa."
Green had already moved to the states by the time Mandela was released, but he followed the news about his native country's transformations as they were happening.
"There could've been a huge civil war. He had to bring all the different sections together - the African tribes, the English, Asians, Indians," Green said.
"No matter what he did in the beginning . . . He was able to put everything aside and just really make the country first and foremost in bringing everybody together."
But other white South African natives still hold Mandela accountable for the acts of terrorism that were committed by many of the rebel groups he led.
"Nelson Mandela (was responsible for) set(ting) off bombs in shopping malls in South Africa where innocent people got hurt," said Kihei resident Pierre Coetzee, who has been living on Maui for 26 years. "He was convicted on 153 counts of terrorism. He was a lawyer at the time, and he pled guilty to those charges."
Coetzee, who described himself as a member of "the older generation," likens the ANC to Islamic terrorist group al-Qaida and remembers seeing footage of the violence broadcasted on television, which at the time was heavily controlled by the government.
"Mandela was not a man of peace. Martin Luther King, I have the utmost respect for him, he did it truly as a man of peace. Mandela embraced other dictators around the world who murdered their own people," Coetzee said, referencing Mandela's friendships with Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Namibian leaders.
But even Dean Otto, who served in the South African Border War and was essentially fighting against the "terrorism" backed by Mandela, says now that Mandela was a "rare individual," "national treasure" and a "great leader."
"He dragged the whole country through what ultimately should've been a disaster," said the Maui resident of 24 years. "He single-handedly pulled everyone together to lead people through a period of time that in a lot of places takes hundreds of years . . . by leading through ways people could relate to - sport, athletics and a tremendous sense of humor."
Otto entered into the army right after high school at age 18, a mandatory three-year enlistment. Six days into basic training, his base was bombed by the ANC.
"I was part of the other world fighting against the world Nelson Mandela was fighting for . . . I didn't now what I was fighting for or why. It was just, 'This is what you do,' " Otto said.
In times of apartheid, the government controlled nearly all media in South Africa, and "we didn't know what we were learning was unusual because we had nothing to compare it to," Otto said. He said it was only after he came to the United States on a rugby scholarship that he realized how flawed the system was.
"We never thought about it growing up. If you were white, you lived here. If you were black, you had to live there . . . After I came to America, I understood it made no sense. In hindsight, we were pretty much brainwashed, and we only knew what they (government) told us," he said.
"In the older days before the transition, I never would've believed it would've turned out the way it did. Even my more conservative uncles who came from a different world, a different time . . . don't have anything bad to say about the guy (Mandela)," Otto said.
When asked whether the anti-apartheid movement Mandela spent his life fighting for had made things better in South Africa, Otto and others living on Maui agreed that indeed, "things are better now."
Mandela's efforts have allowed education, sports, living quarters and jobs to be no longer institutionally segregated by race, allowing for a budding middle class of predominately black South Africans to grow, whereas the country was before divided by the white upper class and the black lower class, Warner said.
"It's like losing a Mother Teresa. That's how much he was beloved," Warner said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.