He set a standard of conduct to which leaders of any age should aspire.
Nelson Roulihlahla Mandela is celebrating his 93rd birthday today, marking still another milestone in a life that few, perhaps not even Mandela himself, could have imagined.
The boy who, like all other boys in his rural South African village of Qunu, herded sheep and kicked around a soccer ball in the rolling hills, may have dared to dream, but in those early years of the 20th century, no young black South African like himself, even one of royal lineage, would have dreamed the dream of his journey from prisoner to president of his country and icon of the world.
And yet, the dream of freedom propelled Mandela into the practice of law and into the streets aboveground and underground and finally into the docks, challenging an unjust system that took away 27 years of his life but not his dream of freedom.
Throughout his years in prison, Mandela never wavered in his determination to free his people from their oppressive existence or compromised in his demands.
"Prison," he once said, "far from breaking our spirits, made us more determined to continue with this battle." And continue it they did, despite being treated like common criminals -- Mandela's eyes were permanently damaged from the effects of having to dig in a rock quarry.
Mandela and the legions of political prisoners on Robben Island liberated themselves from the oppression of the prison bars by preparing for their country's liberation, even though they knew not when. That preparation led Robben Island prison to become known as "Mandela University," and the students included other struggle stalwarts, some of whom -- like Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu -- have passed on, and some of whom -- like President Jacob Zuma -- are now running the country.
And it was from behind prison bars that Mandela, lacking contact with his African National Congress party in exile, initiated talks with the white minority regime that eventually led to the release of all political prisoners -- Mandela among the last -- and the ultimate release of his people from bondage.
But while all of that has led to Mandela's iconic stature, what elevates him above so many of the world's leaders and those in his own country is his humility. "I didn't want to be presented in a way that omits the dark spots in my life," he said a few years after his release from prison, but before he became South Africa's first president elected by all the people. A troubled marriage to Winnie Madikizela Mandela that ended in divorce and a failure to respond aggressively to the HIV/AIDS crisis during his presidency could be considered among the "dark spots."
But they are far outweighed by his embrace of Winnie after their divorce and his eventual outspoken advocacy for HIV/AIDS treatment and against the stigma afflicting so many who are infected with the disease.
He also set a standard for the behavior of a political leader. His philosophy: "Success in politics demands that you must take your people into confidence about your views and state them very clearly, very politely, very calmly, but nevertheless state them openly." A timeless message with a global reach.
Mandela also set a new standard on a continent where all too many of its leaders were known to only leave office feetfirst. Mandela honored his word and stepped down after serving a single, five-year term. Moreover, in addition to living his values, Mandela has left a written record of them in volumes that will be available for generations.
In the last few weeks leading up to this birthday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has been emailing a quote a day from the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. And as I read them each day, I could not help thinking how they need to be read by all of us, no matter where we live or where we call home, but especially by Mandela's countrymen and South Africa's leaders, as the country is challenged increasingly on a daily basis to live up to its promise.
It is also incumbent upon those who came of age in Mandela's lifetime to make sure that the youth whom he championed as keepers of the dream are equipped with the values he lived by to ensure his legacy. The words he spoke back on July 19, 1998 (on the occasion of his 80th birthday) are as relevant today as they were then: "All South Africans," he said, "should rededicate ourselves to turning this into the land of our dreams."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault has lived in and reported from South Africa for 14 years.