THE long walk of Nelson Mandela has become something of a cliché. But it is hard to find a more suitable metaphor for a life that moved from herding cattle in Tembuland to the world’s most prominent political prisoner, the first leader of a free South Africa and one of the most respected global statesmen of all time. It was a journey marked by both physical stamina and moral courage and appears to have been infused from an early age by a personal sense of destiny.

Education at a mission school, Healdtown, and the University of Fort Hare are indicative of a relatively privileged Eastern Cape upbringing. But Mandela’s political involvement brought a move to Johannesburg where he qualified as a lawyer and came under the influence of another (but much neglected) giant of South African liberation politics, Walter Sisulu. Together with Oliver Tambo they were active in reviving the ANC Youth League, of which Mandela became president in 1950. Up to this point his political sympathies inclined towards Africanism.

During the 1950s his public profile soared as volunteer-in-chief during the Defiance Campaign. He suffered persecution from the state that was the norm for an ANC leader – detained, charged under security legislation and banned for six months. From 1956 to 1960 his career and personal life were severely disrupted as one of the final 30 defendants in the Treason Trial. By the time he was acquitted, the ANC was banned. From March 1961 Mandela operated underground, dubbed the Black Pimpernel, and memorably appeared in Pietermaritzburg for that month’s All-In Africa Conference. He was one of the main drivers of the ANC’s decision to turn to armed struggle in 1961. In the process he effectively replaced the ailing Albert Luthuli as president-general of the ANC.

From January to July 1962 he travelled overseas and received military training in Ethiopia. Within a month of returning home he was arrested near Howick and subsequently sentenced to three years in jail for incitement and leaving South Africa illegally. He had completed only a few months before he joined other leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe in the Rivonia trial. His memorable and courageous statement from the dock in April 1964 was a rallying cry to those struggling for liberation and perhaps the first practical intimation of his future as a world statesman. The South African state, unimpressed, awarded him life imprisonment.

Back on Robben Island from 1964 to 1982 he played an influential role amongst the section B inmates as they battled against a harsh and demeaning prison regime. He was particularly concerned to bridge the gap with political prisoners from non-Charterist backgrounds and exercised a conciliatory and persuasive role amongst the new black consciousness inspired intake after the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

With Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni he was transferred to Pollsmoor in March 1982. He had already met minister of justice Jimmy Kruger in 1976 and rejected a conditional offer of reduction of sentence. From Pollsmoor there began a slow process of increasing engagement with the government of P.W. Botha. It was perhaps the most challenging period of his political career, isolated from comrades and normal everyday life, convinced of a need for a negotiated settlement yet aware of the government’s long-standing aim of engineering a split within the ANC. That he was able to have dozens of meetings with government representatives while retaining the confidence of party leaders was a remarkable achievement.

Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990 was one of the most memorable days in the country’s history. Almost immediately appointed effective ANC leader (Oliver Tambo had suffered a stroke) he then embarked on a testing four years of negotiations beset by ongoing violence stoked by various interests. Although diplomatic and conciliatory, Mandela chose the right moments to assert moral authority and maintain the momentum towards a democratic dispensation. For this he was awarded (jointly with President F.W. de Klerk) the Nobel Peace Prize for 1993.

South Africa’s first free elections and the ANC’s victory presented Mandela with the presidency until his retirement from active politics in 1999 at the age of 81. His five years in office are widely seen as the most open and liberal passage in the country’s dark history and are recalled by many with a sense of nostalgia. His cabinet appointments are remembered for their emphasis on competence rather than politics, although there were notable exceptions. He played a unifying, reconciliatory and embracing role as head of state while Thabo Mbeki functioned as effective prime minister. Mandela was also prepared to take principled risks, publicly venting his outrage at the Nigerian government’s persecution of the Ogoni people.

After leaving office Mandela took on high profile diplomatic tasks such as facilitator of the Burundi peace negotiations, but the passage of years gradually restricted him to activities connected to his foundation. From time to time, although clearly frail, his presence was required by the ANC at political rallies and, contentiously, at the 2010 Football World Cup.

There are those who would grant Mandela secular sainthood; and others who regard this as a dangerous misjudgement. He was certainly no saint as his personal history demonstrates. On Robben Island he was regarded by some as an overbearing patriarch, a tendency that was occasionally evident during his presidency. History has yet to debate fully the wisdom of the armed struggle that Mandela enthusiastically supported, although he was one of the first ANC leaders to accept the fact that a negotiated outcome to the liberation cause was essential. Even so, Mandela then maintained friendly relations with some overtly undemocratic world leaders.

Nonetheless, Mandela will remain a rare historical figure notable not just for what he achieved politically, but also for the values and moral cause for which he stood. He was a true leader, able to see beyond the narrow horizon of political expediency, discern the long-term common good and act realistically and persuasively by bringing people together. Magnanimity and generosity of spirit were his hallmarks. This explains why arguably his greatest achievements came late in life and after his strictly political career was over: his personal example served to hold together a significant part of the nation. Another of his many achievements, derived from his liberal early education and life-long Anglophile inclinations, was to bridge that crucial gap between the African traditionalism into which he was born and the modern world.

The legacy of Nelson Mandela is not as easy to define as might appear. His achievements and beliefs continue to exert a strong hold on the imaginations and attitudes of millions of individual South Africans who followed the advice of Zelda le Grange, his personal assistant: ‘look at his life and learn’. But too often this resulted in the packaging of Mandela as a so-called icon, a creation of popular culture that distorted and trivialised his complex role. And it can also be argued that long before his death he had become an anachronism whose system of belief and behaviour had been discarded by his party. In public policy it is hard to find evidence of the non-racialism that featured so prominently in his Rivonia trial speech, delivered when the poisonous Percy Yutar was intent on destroying him and his life was literally in the hands of an apartheid-era judge. There are those who would argue that South Africa has already failed Mandela. Certainly his passing marks the beginning of the end of a political tradition of service and selflessness based on the exercise of conscience and principle in the struggle for a moral and just society. In some senses Mandela lived long enough to outlive his own legacy.

Mandela’s personal stature will remain largely unchallenged although he suffers by comparison with other great figures in the human rights struggle such as Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King and, indeed, Albert Luthuli as they remained opposed to violence. Perhaps Betty Boothroyd, former speaker of the British House of Commons, provides the most fitting epitaph: he ‘represent[ed] the best spirit of humankind’.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: born Mvezo, Transkei, 18 July 1918; died Johannesburg, 5 December 2013.

This obituary was first published in a commemorative supplement of The Witness on 6 December 2013 and entitled ‘Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’