December 23, 2013 12:00 PM

Though he had been in decline for years, when word came on Dec. 5 that Nelson Mandela had died at his home in Johannesburg, surrounded by loved ones, those who revered the great South African leader – which is to say not only his countrymen, but his millions of admirers around the globe = felt at once that the world was now a smaller place. Beyond his courage, his patience and his relentless determination to create a just society, Mandela had a humility and compassion that touched people of all political persuasions. When he succumbed months after being treated for a recurring lung infection, he was eulogized by his dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “a magician who had turned South Africa, a poisonous caterpillar, into a beautiful butterfly.”

Tenacious, optimistic, peace-loving, Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years during his fight to end the apartheid system. “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa,” he once said, “there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named goodness and forgiveness.”

A member of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu, Mandela was one of 13 children born to a sub-chief with four wives who served as counselor to the Thembu royal family. Only 9 when his father died, Nelson became a ward of the high chief, who let the boy watch him conduct tribal business. The council was democratic, a key lesson for young Mandela. Ultimately that became his vision for his country – a “new world,” as he said in his 1994 inaugural speech, with “justice for all … peace for all … work, bread, water and salt for all.”

That wasn’t the way of life elsewhere in South Africa. As a young attorney in Johannesburg, he had been exposed to the system of apartheid, or “apartness”: Blacks were not allowed to vote, own property in most regions, marry whites or take jobs reserved for whites. “Coloreds” (people of mixed race) faced slightly less restrictive rules. The “steady accumulation of a thousand indignities,” he would write in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, “produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight.”

Joining the fledgling African National Congress (ANC), he organized demonstrations and strikes. When the ANC was outlawed in 1960, Mandela went underground to lead a militant armed operation. This Mandela, according to his close associate Oliver Tambo, was “stung to bitterness and retaliation.” After incriminating documents and bomb-making equipment were found at an ANC hideout in 1963, Mandela was tried for sabotage. He told the court that his dream of a democratic and free society “is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He almost did. Sent at 45 to Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz, prisoner 466/64 lived in a bare 8×7-ft. cell. “You have no idea,” he said, “of the cruelty of man against man until you have been in a South African prison with black prisoners and white wardens.” Prohibited from talking to other inmates, Mandela trained his spirit to hew to a new path: “Make the brain dominate the blood.”

He emerged Feb. 11, 1990, determined to continue. Working with white president F.W. de Klerk, Mandela urged blacks and whites to seek reconciliation. In 1994, voting for the first time, South Africa’s 18 million blacks made Mandela the country’s first black president. His five-year tenure received mixed reviews, tainted by charges of corruption against his administration and his embrace of dictators like Saddam Hussein.

Mandela’s private life was also brushed by scandal and sorrow. His first wife, Evelyn Mase, a nurse he wed in 1944, told him he would have to choose between her and the ANC. “I could not give up my life in the struggle,” he wrote in his memoir. They separated in 1955. Their daughter Maki survives, but Mandela outlived both their sons: Thembekile died in a car crash in 1969 and Makgatho of AIDS in 2005.

With his second marriage, to Winnie Madikizela in 1958, Mandela found a soulmate, but in 1991 she was convicted of complicity in the kidnapping and assault of a 14-year-old activist murdered by her bodyguards. Mandela ended their marriage in 1996. He found love again in 1998 with Graça Machel, now 68, widow of Mozambique president Samora Machel. Despite some infirmities, Mandela was thrilled to attend the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, a signal event in the post-apartheid era. Among the guests were more than a dozen heads of state. To the end, Mandela clung to his humility. “I was not a messiah,” he would say, “but an ordinary man who became a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Those who loved Mandela knew better. When his 7-year-old goddaughter Helena Inzerillo heard of his passing from her father, Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of IMG Artists, the girl responded, “Don’t be sad. We now have to follow his example.”

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