As his former cellmate and long time friend, Ahmed Kathrada, said recently: “He was born into a royal house and there was always that sense about him of someone who knew the meaning of leadership.”
The Mandela who led the African National Congress into government displayed a conspicuous sense of his own dignity and a self-belief that nothing in 27 years of imprisonment had been capable of destroying.
Although Mr Mandela frequently described himself as simply part of the ANC’s leadership, there was never any doubt that he was the most potent political figure of his generation in South Africa.
To the wider world he represented many things, not least an icon of freedom but also the most vivid example in modern times of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Back in the early 1990s, I remember then President, FW De Klerk, telling me he how he found Mandela’s lack of bitterness “astonishing”.
His fundamental creed was best expressed in his address to the sabotage trial in 1964. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It 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.”
Born in 1918, Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was raised in the village of Mvezo in the Transkei in the Eastern Cape. He was one of 13 children from a family with close links to the royal house of the Thembu people.
Mr Mandela often recalled his boyhood in the green hills of the Transkei with fondness. This was a remote landscape of beehive-shaped huts and livestock grazing on poor land.
He was only nine when his father died of tuberculosis. Always closer emotionally to his mother, Mr Mandela described his father as a stern disciplinarian. But he credited his father with instilling the instincts that would help carry him to greatness.
Years later Mr Mandela would write that “my father possessed a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness?” His death changed the course of the boy’s life.
The young Mandela was sent from his home village to live as a ward of the Thembu royal house, where he would be groomed for a leadership role.
This meant he must have a proper education. He was sent to a Methodist school, where he was given the name Nelson. He was a diligent student and in 1939 went to Fort Hare University, then a burgeoning centre of African nationalism.
1918?Born in the Eastern Cape
1943?Joined African National Congress
1956?Charged with high treason, but charges dropped after a four-year trial
1962?Arrested, convicted of incitement and leaving country without a passport, sentenced to five years in prison
1964?Charged with sabotage, sentenced to life
1990?Freed from prison
1993?Wins Nobel Peace Prize
1994?Elected first black president
1999?Steps down as leader
2001?Diagnosed with prostate cancer
2004?Retires from public life
2005?Announces his son has died of an HIV/Aids-related illness
It was at Fort Hare that Mr Mandela met the future ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, with whom he would establish the first black law practice in South Africa. Both were expelled from the university in 1940 for political activism.
First as a lawyer, then an activist and ultimately as a guerrilla leader, Mr Mandela moved towards the collision with state power that would change his own and his country’s fate.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period of growing tumult in South Africa, as African nationalists allied with the South African Communist Party challenged the apartheid state.
When protest was met with brute force, the ANC launched an armed struggle with Mr Mandela at its head.
He was arrested and charged with treason in 1956. After a trial lasting five years, Mr Mandela was acquitted. But by now the ANC had been banned and his comrade Oliver Tambo had gone into exile.
Nelson Mandela went underground and embarked on a secret trip to seek help from other African nations emerging from colonial rule. He also visited London to meet Tambo.
But soon after his return he was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail. Further charges, of sabotage, led to a life sentence that would see him spend 27 years behind bars.
He worked in the lime quarry on Robben Island, the prison in Cape Town harbour where the glaring sun on the white stone caused permanent damage to his eyes; he contracted tuberculosis in Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town, and he held the first talks with government ministers while he was incarcerated at the Victor Verster prison farm.
In conversation, he would often say prison had given him time to think. It had also formed his habits in sometimes poignant ways.
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I recall a breakfast with several other journalists, where Mr Mandela was briefing us on the latest political talks. The waiter approached with a bowl of porridge. Tasting it briefly, the ANC leader shook his head. “It is too hot,” he said. The waiter went away and returned with another bowl. This too was sent back. The waiter was looking embarrassed as he approached for the third time.
Fortunately the temperature was now cool enough. The famous broad smile appeared. The waiter was heartily thanked and breakfast – and our questions – were able to continue.
“That was a bit fussy wasn’t it,” I remarked to a colleague afterwards.
My colleague pulled me up short with his reply. “Think about it. If you spent 27 years in jail, most of the time eating food that was either cold or at best lukewarm, you are going to end up struggling with hot food.”
There it was, expressed in the most prosaic of realities, a reminder of the long vanished years of Nelson Mandela.
Prison had taken away the prime of his life. It had taken away his family life. Relations with some of his children were strained. His marriage to Winnie Mandela would end in divorce.
But as I followed him over the next three years, through embattled townships, tense negotiations, moments of despair and elation, I would understand that prison had never robbed his humanity.
I remember listening to him in a dusty township after a surge of violence which threatened to derail negotiations. Fighting between ANC supporters and the predominantly Zulu Inkatha movement had claimed thousands of lives, mainly in the townships around Johannesburg and in the hills of Natal.
In those circumstances another leader might have been tempted to blame the enemy alone. But when Mr Mandela spoke he surprised all of us who were listening: “There are members of the ANC who are killing our people? We must face the truth. Our people are just as involved as other organisations that are committing violence? We cannot climb to freedom on the corpses of innocent people.”
He knew the crowd would not like his message but he also knew they would listen.
As an interviewee, he deflected personal questions with references to the suffering of all South Africans. One learned to read the expressions on his face for a truer guide to what Mr Mandela felt.
On the day that he separated from Winnie Mandela, I interviewed him at ANC headquarters. I have no recollection of what he said but the expression of pure loneliness on his face is one I will always remember.
But my final memory of Nelson Mandela is one of joy. On the night of 2 May 1994 I was crammed into a function room full of officials, activists, diplomats and journalists, struggling to hear each other as the music pulsed and the cheers rang out.
The ANC had won a comprehensive victory. On the stage, surrounded by his closest advisors, Nelson Mandela danced and waved to the crowd. He smiled the open, generous smile of a man who had lived to see his dream.