In 1990, an elderly man emerged from 27 years in prison into a country whose future was balanced on a knife-edge and which the world had long believed would not be able to escape the inevitable fate of all oppressive states: a full-blown and very bloody civil war. Instead, under his transforming leadership, his country, became—for a time at least—a place of pride rather than opprobrium and a lesson for all divided societies that the dream of peaceful reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed could become a reality, even in places long deformed by race or sectarian prejudice and fear.

At a time when in Africa and the Middle East that lesson has been forgotten, more than 100 current and former heads of state joined tens of thousands of South Africans in the pouring rain in Johannesburg to pay tribute to and celebrate the life of the man who led South Africa out of darkness and who long before his death was hailed around the world as one of the greatest leaders of the last 100 years. As the captains and the kings departed and Nelson Mandela began his last journey to his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, both South Africans and the rest of a war-torn world are left to wonder how and where the lessons he taught us can be deployed and, perhaps more pertinently, how long his legacy will last in the country he led.

I was one of the very few observers who saw Nelson Mandela in the mid ’70s when he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. As one of a group of journalists I was allowed to visit the island by the apartheid government which appeared to believe that permitting the visit would improve its image. The attempt predictably failed, especially when the government tried, without success, to censor our subsequent reports. That visit—filmed by the government—is now apparently on a permanent loop at the Apartheid Museum in South Africa.

On the momentous day of Mandela’s release from prison, I was in London and part of the BBC’s television coverage of the event. Within weeks, however, I was seated next to him at a very small dinner party in Johannesburg where we had a lively, but amiable disagreement as to whether the African National Congress should eventually convert itself from a “peoples’ movement” into a political party. Like everyone around the world, I fell under the spell of his grace, his generosity of spirit, and the warmth of his character.

In subsequent years when, during his frequent visits to London, I happened to organize events designed to empty the pockets of the great, the good, and the hopefully generous into the coffers of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, I would be greeted with great warmth, that broad, welcoming smile and that inimitable voice: ”Ohhh … Fle … ur!” It was on these occasions, as well as at the state banquet during his first visit to London as president of South Africa, that I observed his remarkable ability to walk with kings yet keep the common touch, his dignity at occasions of great pomp and circumstance coupled with a determination to meet and engage with the ordinary men, women and especially children he met along the way.

I remember, particularly an event I had organized at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by Charles II in 1681 and designed by Christopher Wren as a home for old soldiers, who today still wear their distinctive 17th-century uniform and tricorn hat whenever they venture beyond the grounds of the hospital.

The event, featuring South African artists and designers, was to take place in the hospital’s Great Hall following a reception in the staterooms. When the Chelsea pensioners, as they are known to Londoners (and to tourists), heard that Mandela would be there that evening, they asked if they could form a guard of honor. All 300—some in their 90s—lined up in full dress uniform, in strict formation and with backs as ramrod straight as their years would allow. For the one and only time in the years that I knew him, Mandela—a stickler for punctuality—delayed the start of the event as he stopped and grasped the hands of and spoke to each and every old soldier, leaving them all with tears in their eyes.

This was the measure—and the grace—of the man who seemed to reach out and touch all who saw him and why no one has ever forgotten even the most fleeting contact with him.

Like everyone, I marvelled at the total lack of bitterness in a man with more cause than most to be bitter, the genuine humility that is the strength of a true leader, but is seldom found in those who aspire to power. And like everyone who saw and heard him I fell a willing victim to his charm, his infectious good humor, and his love of life.

These qualities, rarely combined in one man, nevertheless do not fully explain him. Much has been written of the “Madiba magic” that brought peace to South Africa, while others have described him as a secular saint. But this is too facile an explanation and one which could fatally undermine his legacy. By definition, magic and sainthood defy imitation and so excuse his successors from even trying to learn from his example. And they restrain the people who both mourned his death and celebrated his life from demanding that their present leaders prove themselves worthy of the office he graced and showed something of the quality which was the true key to his greatness: moral authority. It was this which powered his remarkable capacity to forgive his oppressors, his refusal ever to play the race card as a means to garner popular support or excuse failure, and his commitment to reach out to all—even the most intractable of his former enemies—in his quest to reconcile South Africans to each other.

Fortune smiled on South Africa when Mandela emerged from prison to prove that, very occasionally, when the hour comes, so does the man. If his successors squander that remarkable inheritance on greed, grievance, populist slogans, and the spoils of power, they will betray his memory, no matter how often they invoke his name.

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