"If we did not have a Mandela … the history of this country would be different," says Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela's second wife.

He had a face recognised by millions, a reputation admired worldwide, and a style all of his own. But who was the man behind the legend?

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Nelson Rolihlahla was born in 1918 in a small village in South Africa.

His name meant 'troublemaker', one who stirs things up. Later South Africans would call him Madiba, his clan name and an affectionate nickname.

His father died when he was nine years old. He went to stay with his uncle, a royal chief. Seeing the chief dispense justice set in motion a lifetime desire to fight for equality and democracy.

At university he studied law but his political activities got him expelled, so he moved to Johannesburg where he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a political party opposed to South Africa's racial segregation.

Known as 'apartheid' this system of government legally allowed for discrimination against non-whites. "He was the leader deliberately chosen by the ANC to be a symbol of resistance," Winnie Mandela says.

Mandela played an active and vocal role opposing the policies of South Africa's nationalist government. He took his activities underground in the 1960s, but was soon arrested, convicted of sabotage and treason and imprisoned for life.

He was released 27 years later, and was at the forefront of ushering in a new democratic dawn for the country.

Mandela helped build a new image for South Africa and although he spent the last years of his life away from the public eye, he will always be remembered as a man who inspired the world.

"The world needs symbols, the world needs to highlight the best of values we can find in certain human beings, we deliberately, minimise his weaknesses and we minimise his vulnerabilities because that's what counts. We even overvalue what he means in goodness." Says Graca Machel, his third wife, who he lived with until his death in 2013.

I Knew Mandela talks to Nelson Mandela's family and the people who met him, to uncover the life of a legend who, in many ways, changed how South Africa is viewed by others and by itself.

Source: Al Jazeera