A fitting way to commemorate Nelson Mandela is to describe his arrival in the townships during the first democratic elections in 1994. The crowds travelled up to 100 miles in cattle trucks or minibuses to get to places that apartheid had deliberately made remote and barren. Then they waited for hours, in a ramshackle stadium with little shade. Despite being punctual in his personal life, Mandela on the campaign trail was always late: a victim of overambitious scheduling and inefficient minders.
Finally, the crowds saw his cavalcade throw up dust in the distance, and they began to sing the campaign song Sekunjalo Ke Nako (Now is the Time). Everyone started to dance, ululations and cheers growing in intensity. Many of those present had not seen Mandela even on TV, and knew his face only from posters and newspaper pictures. Flags and placards hoisted above heads created a ripple at first, then a wave of excitement on a sea of black, gold and green.
The rush of energy did not subside until Mandela had taken the stage half an hour later. By then the crowd had got what it came for – proximity, a sighting, to be present in history. For hours after the rally, people walking home from the stadium punched the air and shouted "amandla" ("power") at passing cars.
The problem with personifying a national, political aspiration, as Mandela did, is that it becomes difficult to see where the man starts and the movement ends. In the end, only death could separate him from that conundrum. Symbol, emblem, father of the nation, embodiment of the movement; for most of his life he had few opportunities just to be himself. Barbara Masekela (sister of jazz trumpeter Hugh), who looked after him during his 1994 campaign, described how he would try to give her and the bodyguards the slip in airports, just for the chance to browse in the shops on his own.
"The moment he stepped out of prison he was national property, and it was as if we were lucky to get 10 minutes of his time for the family," said Winnie Mandela, at a time when she was already estranged from him. "I think the family is still waiting for him. Psychologically he hasn't come out of prison, in the sense that now he is back for the people. It has really been a continuation of the kind of life where the family didn't have access to him."
While Mandela's time in jail was what eventually made him famous, his actual arrest, imprisonment and conviction in 1962 were not exceptional. They chimed with the fate of those middle-class Africans and people of African descent who led the struggle for racial equality, civil rights and post-colonial democracy, not just locally but globally.
Between his initial arrest and his conviction at Rivonia, several countries – Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya and Zanzibar – became independent, and the civil rights act was on its way into law in the United States.
Mandela's final words from the dock struck a chord across continents. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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."
His speech would only become well known decades later. For what was always truly remarkable about Mandela's story is not that he was jailed when he was (the apartheid regime thought nothing of murdering Steve Biko 13 years afterwards), but that he was in prison for so many years. Long after the rest of the world had abandoned the crudest forms of segregation, at a time when Malcolm X's grandchildren had started school and the Berlin Wall had come down, apartheid was still standing.
"The same mistakes that we made were made in the United States and the ex-colonies," FW de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, once told me. "Then we carried them on for around 20 years longer."
Mandela and South Africa became symbolic of unfinished business: the final chapter in the narrative of ending formal segregation. The anti-apartheid campaigns, which made Mandela's imprisonment their focus, were in a sense anachronistic in the late 20th century, and were a rare clear-cut moral cause, of which Mandela stood as an unimpeachable champion.
This led to a sanctification that was as hard for him personally as it was helpful for the movement politically. He was not an apparatchik. But with the liberation of the country dominating his life, everything else took second place. After being in prison for so long, he was not in a position to make mistakes. However, he not only had a symbolic status but was the embodiment of huge, pent-up expectations – so once released, he could only disappoint.
For some on the left he was insufficiently strident. He sold arms to Indonesia, proceeded too softly with many dictators and left too many of apartheid's economic inequalities intact.
As an activist he had embraced the ANC's Freedom Charter, a statement of core principles, which included such demands as "land to be given to all landless people" and "living wages and shorter hours of work". But as president he emerged into a unipolar world, dominated by neo-liberal globalisation, and his new government had to negotiate its way to stability. Arguably, it had a stronger hand in these negotiations than it thought. Mandela could, at that time, have got a better deal for the poor by following a more redistributive agenda.
Others strained only to see him as a moral force; not so much post-racial as post-partisan. Subscribers to the big man theory of history, and others who simply wanted to put Mandela on a pedestal to establish a distance between him and the lesser mass of black South Africans, tried to recount the country's recent history as the personal triumph of a principled leader over ignorant and unruly followers. Towards the end of Mandela's first term, I attended an emigration seminar, where the speaker mesmerised an overwhelmingly white audience with an apocalyptic vision. Holding up a copy of When Mandela Goes, a book by journalist Lester Venter, he said: "People – this book is a wake-up call. The bad news is that [when Mandela goes] the pawpaw's really going to hit the fan.
"The good news is the fan probably won't be working."
It is important to recall just how widespread these fears of chaos and incompetence were when Mandela was released. Majority rule, many claimed, would lead to communism, internecine tribal warfare and economic collapse. While these forebodings were more than tinged with racial disparagement, events elsewhere on the continent gave them credibility. By the time Mandela took the stage at the Grand Parade rally in Cape Town to claim victory and do what is now know as the Madiba Jive, the Rwandan genocide was well under way.
Most criticisms of Mandela as a leader were simplistic because they started from the basis of proving or disproving his sanctity, rather than trying to understand him for who he was: a political leader guiding a developing country through a transitional phase. His singular and considerable achievement was to pave the way for a stable democracy.
He was never a revolutionary. While other freedom fighters on the continent were embracing socialism and pan-Africanism, Mandela at his trial praised the country's former colonial power. "I have great respect for British institutions and for [Britain's] system of justice. I regard the British parliament as the most democratic in the world."
But he was always a radical. Comfortable with communists, he could have left jail a lot sooner if he had been prepared to ditch his comrades in the name of pragmatism. More recently he was forthright in his condemnation of the Iraq war, insisting that the attitude of the US was "a threat to world peace".
Once he left office, until his health deteriorated, he remained active in global and local affairs, always strategic in his interventions but often also outspoken. Through his foundation he pursued his campaigns for social justice and reconciliation.
If he had thrived for longer, who knows what he might have done: perhaps revived the non-aligned movement and made it more relevant in a multipolar world, or turned his attentions specifically to the interests of African youth or women. But he was 95. He couldn't live forever. And, for one lifetime, he had done enough.