The image is unforgettable to those in America who watched on television as Nelson Mandela, the legendary freedom fighter, walked out of prison in 1990. The man some would call a revolutionary was at that point a man of myth, hero to many in his home country of South Africa, icon to some Americans involved in the civil rights movement, mysterious to those who knew only of his legend.
And then there he was, free at last after 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid, the South African policy of segregation and discrimination that was part of the governments fabric. Four years after Mandela was released, he was elected president of his country.
Prior to that, hed joined forces with then-President F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid. It was Mandelas cause for life and a monumental profile in courage for de Klerk.
Mandela has died at age 95, his long years not enough to compensate him for all the time lost, but certainly appropriate for a man of legend. Even in old age, his gray hair, his tall, distinguished bearing, his bright smile, made the legend even more grand.
He became, before, during and after his election as president he served just one term by choice a truly global figure, achieving a role of worldwide statesman.
And his country ... there is his legacy. South Africa, with its horrid racial policies, was ostracized from much of the world until Mandelas release. (He refused conditional early release offers.) Mandela helped bring his country out of the shadows. For his years as president and in the decade and more since, he has been South Africa to many, and that has served the country well.
Mandelas legacy is spectacular in many ways, but the amazing thing about him is that he transcended generations. South Africans young enough to be his great-grandchildren celebrate him and know him. He is a touchstone of history and of almost unimaginable personal courage. Twenty-seven years in prison left him determined to continue to fight for his principles, unbowed, and he achieved a success that once he might have imagined could be achieved only through violent revolution.
There were such days, of course, but in the end, Nelson Mandela brought a measure of unity to a country where once that was unthinkable.