Nelson Mandela: leader among leaders
Chief among African leaders, Nelson Mandela is one of few statesmen to have achieved almost universal respect around the world and across the political spectrum.
His role in fighting apartheid, his imprisonment on Robben Island - where he came to symbolise the struggle of oppressed people around the world - and his ability to steer South Africa through the crisis of its rebirth earned him the international reputation of benevolent negotiator and quintessential peacemaker.
Imprisoned for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, Mandela came out of prison in 1990 expressing no bitterness towards his tormentors. Instead, he championed reconciliation among South Africa's polarised races, espousing the principles of nation-building and cooperative governance.
Mandela was one of the few leaders cabable of inspiring confidence both inside and outside the country. Few others would have managed to unite the disparate warring parties and steer South Africa from what seemed to be the brink of civil war.
To some, Mandela had a near-omnipotent power at the negotiating table, carrying with him an indubitable moral authority and gentle but firm sense of fairness. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with former South African president FW de Klerk.
As South Africa's first democratically elected President in 1994, Mandela tackled the challenge of uniting both the country's racial groupings and a fragmented public service whose delivery mandate was skewed in favour of the white population.
A significant milestone of the his presidency was the exemplary constitution-making process, which delivered a document that is the envy of the democratic world.
Mandela is equally known for taking a strong stand against the giant world powers - especially in defence of Africa. As President, he was unrestrained in embracing the ANC's former allies, such as Libya's Muammar Gadaffi and Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, in spite of criticism from the United States.
His position also made for fluid relationships with both Russia and China, former communist allies of the ANC.
After handing over the reigns of the presidency to Thabo Mbeki in 1999, Mandela played a key role as middleman in crisis-hit areas such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Besides campaigning globally for peace, Mandela focused his still prodigious energies increasingly on empowering disadvantaged children and fighting against HIV/Aids.
In June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. His parting gift - a R1-billion endowment to South Africa, to be raised by the three charitable organisations that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
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