The passing of Nelson Mandela today has opened the floodgates to tributes from leaders, editors and admirers from every part of the world. How can one not pay homage at this solemn moment the man who, more than anyone else, made it possible for South Africa to emerge from the darkness of apartheid into the light of a multi-racial democracy, without a bloody revolution?

For decades the name of Nelson Mandela has been a touchstone for racial equality and freedom, his face one of the most famous of the later 20th century. My first foray into political activism occurred under his patronage when I joined tens of thousands of New Zealanders demonstrating against the 1981 (all white) Springbok rugby tour of this country, led by the well-established anti-apartheid movement. It was a sobering and deeply divisive moment in our history – a defining moment for many in terms of political values. Mandela then was in his 18th year in prison.

By 1995, everything had changed. Mandela was the president of South Africa and his country, long the “skunk of the world” as he once put it, and boycotted by most sporting bodies, was hosting the Rugby World Cup. In a gesture that was both uniquely his, and a gamble (since not everything, especially feelings, had changed), he went out on the field at Ellis Park for the final in a Springbok jersey bearing the number  (6) of South Africa’s captain on that day, Francois Pienaar, with whom he had developed a close friendship. It worked. The huge crowd began chanting “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!” and the Boks went on to win over the New Zealand All Blacks – the whole drama celebrated in the movie Invictus.

It was a marvellous unifying moment:

After South Africa had won the final 15-12, a fairytale ending to its first major event as a democracy, Mandela – still in his jersey – handed the glistening gold World Cup trophy to the blonde-haired Pienaar, an ideal picture of a new South Africa. Mandela reached out his left hand and laid it on Pienaar’s right shoulder, patting it gently.

“He said to me `Thank you for what you have done for South Africa,'” Pienaar recalled. “I said to him, `No, Madiba, you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.’ And I felt like hugging him. I really felt like giving him a big hug, but it wasn’t protocol … and that just gave me shivers down my spine.”

And then Mandela raised both his arms in celebration, smiling gleefully with obvious and undisguised delight as Pienaar lifted the cup.

“Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination,” Mandela said.

That account reminds me of one of the three lasting impressions I have of Nelson Mandela, Madiba.

His smile: There must have been many times of desperation and misery in his life – the loss of his father when he was a young boy; the numbing boredom and casual cruelties of prison, guilt over his failed marriages and the effect on his children, criticism from his own political allies over his compromises with the white politicians. No doubt he got angry at times. Perhaps he was unkind at times. However, the image of him that sticks in my mind is relaxed and smiling. It seems to have been his natural expression, born of self-acceptance, an openness to others and a hopeful outlook that was reassuring and calming. Just what his countrymen needed.

His dignity: There was something about the bearing of Mandela that made the cliché “quiet dignity” come alive. Bill Keller in the New York Times says that when Mandela was an infant his father, a sub-tribal chief, “was stripped of his chieftainship by a British magistrate for insubordination — showing a proud stubborn streak his son willingly claimed as an inheritance.” Later he was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu and “some of his closest friends would always attribute his regal self-confidence (and his occasional autocratic behaviour) to his upbringing in a royal household.”

His education (he studied law at the only residential black university in the country) also gave him confidence but behind these things there was also a conviction about what he called in his inaugural presidential speech “the nobility of the human soul”, a dignity that all had to strive to live up to in their daily deeds. Only a conviction like this can bring about real justice in a country like South Africa where there has been such a chasm between white and black, rich and poor in the material signs of dignity. This is very much an unfinished agenda in that country – as in all others.

His capacity for forgiveness: Mandela’s focus on reconciliation began inside himself, even while he was in prison. A life sentence on the grim Robben Island, labouring in a limestone quarry, 20-odd years without ever touching his wife – this would be understandable grounds for bitterness. But there he made friends – even with a guard, from whom he learned Afrikaans (“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart,” Mandela said) and whom he later invited to his inauguration as president.

He emerged from those years not, as some other freedom fighters did, seething with resentment, but as a statesman bent on a peaceful transition out of the hateful apartheid system and towards national reconciliation. He did not like F. W. de Klerk, the white president who preceded him, but agreed to share power — and a Nobel Peace Prize — with him. And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites against their fears of vengeance.

How could that be? Bill Keller asked him in an interview in 2007 and says that Mandela’s answer was “almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” That sounds pragmatic rather than noble. Keller also reports, “Some who worked with him said this apparent magnanimity came easily to him because he always regarded himself as superior to his persecutors.” That could sound simply proud.

Maybe the answer is more obvious: Nelson Mandela had a Christian (Methodist) as well as tribal upbringing and seemed perfectly comfortable speaking about the soul and the virtues encountered in the Beatitudes, which include this one: Blessed are you when men persecute you… Blessed are the peacemakers… the merciful…” Thus, among the inspirational sayings of Mandela circulating on the web today are the following:

You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Long Walk to Freedom

Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one’s own morality, one’s own behaviour, and one’s own attitude.

And finally, lest we canonise him too soon:

I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

That is an epitaph we could all try and live up to.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet