Nelson Mandela was a man, always, of his time. Yet he was, paradoxically, one who in some ways stood apart from – and even above – that time. It was in this that his greatness lay.
Mr Mandela, who died on Thursday aged 95, was a towering figure in the 20th century. He did not just bestride the continent of Africa but became a political colossus of the entire world stage.
Yet he was more even than that. The magnanimity he displayed, as the white rule of apartheid crumbled in his native South Africa in 1990, created a paradigm shift in what was possible - or even thinkable - in modern politics.
Because of those extraordinary personal qualities, the name of Nelson Mandela sits as comfortably in a litany of his century's great spiritual leaders - like Gandhi and Martin Luther King - as it does among the 20th-century's iconic political figures, like Lenin, Churchill, Mao and Gorbachev, who shaped the destiny of their nations.
Mandela's name adds lustre, too, to a catalogue of Nobel Peace Prize laureates which includes Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama.
But though some have characterised him as a kind of secular saint, throughout his career he demonstrated a distinct combination of visionary imagination and fine political judgement. "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying," he once observed, with a touch of asperity. He was no holy fool but a holy sage. He brought together integrity and calculation in a singular political package.
From the beginning of his public life he demonstrated a paradoxical combination: being of his time and yet leading it toward a better future. He was born the hereditary successor to a Tembu chiefdom but renounced it on his father's death to become a lawyer. "I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth," he later wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. "But a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."
The systematic oppression of the black majority by a white minority in South Africa led him to join the African National Congress and engage in 15 years of activist opposition to apartheid after it was introduced in 1948. It was only when the ANC was banned in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 - in which South African police opened fire on a peaceful crowd of black protesters, killing 69 people - that Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing of the ANC.
When Mandela was put on trial for plotting to overthrow the government by violence in 1963 he made a statement from the dock which echoed round the world. It did not save him from prison. But over the next 27 years which he spent in jail, studying for a London law degree by post, his international reputation grew steadily. "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," he later said.
He was educating not just himself but international opinion. As the years passed the figure of the jailed Mandela - a man of unblemished integrity and a prisoner of conscience - became a powerful global symbol of resistance. The anti-apartheid movement developed a slow but irresistible momentum.
Yet even when the white regime of PW Botha began negotiations with Mandela in his prison cell in the mid 1980s, the jailed leader consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.
Botha's successor F W de Klerk saw the black writing on the white wall and, with considerable foresight and bravery, in 1990 released Mandela from prison, lifted the ban on the ANC and paved the way for a new majority-vote South African constitution.
In 1993 the black and white leaders were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Mandela was awarded something more profound - the awed respect of the world - for the way he then conducted himself. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," he later wrote.
It was a political as well as a personal insight. "You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution," he added.
In his jail on Robben Island a humiliating punishment was inflicted by the white warders on the black prisoners. They were routinely made to dig a pit and drop into it. The jailors then urinated on the inmates, before making them fill in the pit. Against that background it was an act of exceptional generosity of spirit that led Nelson Mandela to invite a number of his white warders to his first official dinner at President of South Africa.
"I dream of an Africa which is at peace with itself," said Mandela the visionary.
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner," said Mandela the strategist
"Know your enemy — and learn about his favourite sport," quipped Mandela the tactician who went on to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite black and white South Africans behind the Springbok national team the blacks once had booed.
Mandela's shrewdness, combined with his noble high-mindedness, made him a beacon of peace and reconciliation throughout the world. "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear," he said, "but the triumph over it."
All political careers, it is said, end in tears. But Nelson Mandela's did not.
He did not stand for a second term as President of South Africa but left the stage with dignity and an affection that bordered on love from millions of people who had never met him.
He was not a man without human frailty. In the early years he was, his first wife Evelyn Mase said, "a dandy and adulterer." Later in the ANC he organised a sabotage campaign against military and government targets, and made plans for a guerrilla war if sabotage failed to end apartheid - something he later told his own Truth and Reconciliation Commission violated human rights. And when he became President he initially failed to understand the seriousness of the threat posed by Aids to his people and did not do enough to combat the pandemic.
Yet towering above all that was his heroic virtue. It is no coincidence that he used to read to his fellow prisoners some verses by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley. The poem, Invictus, speaks of the "unconquerable soul" and of a head which is "bloody, but unbowed." It ends with the words: "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul".
Part of Nelson Mandela's greatness lay in the fact that he did not just know this in the depth of his very being; he was able to inspire others to find it in themselves too.
In 2005 he appeared in London before 20,000 people at a Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square. Bob Geldof introduced him to the crowd as "The President of the World". Mandela spoke like one.
Eradicating poverty, he said, could be, like abolishing slavery or apartheid, the work of a single generation. His peroration concluded:
"Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You could be that generation."
The genius of Nelson Mandela was that he did not just believe that. He made us believe it too.
In The Independent on Saturday:
A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela
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