THE marvel of Nelson Mandela is that he means something positive to so many millions throughout the world.
His life proved some of the eternal truths every generation wants and needs to believe in. That patience wins out over fury. That perseverance in a cause can change the unchangeable. That one human being can make a profound difference to the shape of the world.
Setting aside the usual cliches devoted to any political leader who's been around for a long time and facing their last days – "end of an era" and so on – it's clear that Mandela in life was arguably more important than any other political leader, immeasurably more important than any military leader of his time.
The nicknames children earn from their peers can say a lot about them, and Mandela's nickname was Rolihlahia, which, in the language of his tribe, means "a troublemaker".
Even as a child, even as a member of a royal family, this boy was one to watch. He was also a boy to educate. In later life, he was relentless in his emphasis on education as a key, as a catalyst and as an instrument.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," he said, and the fact is that without education, Mandela would never have been heard of outside of his tribe.
Even if he had the personality, even if he had the brain, even if he had the advantage of royal birth, absent education, Nelson Mandela would never have become a household name right across the world. But he got the education that made all the difference, qualifying as a lawyer and then becoming an activist.
In the middle of the last century that saw him being arrested, time and again, even though, in his early days, he was a pacifist committed to avoiding violence.
That changed. Younger people who came to know Mandela as a bright-shirted smiling senior citizen who had won the Nobel Peace prize would not have known that this was a guerrilla warrior who led a bombing campaign aimed at government buildings and the people within those buildings.
He looked, in old age, like a man who would never raise a hand to another human being – and, indeed, in age, that's what he became. But as a young lawyer, his hands were bloodied by death and destruction, and, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government of South Africa, he ended up in prison. Not for one year, or 10 years, but for 27.
He was later to write about his time in prison with remarkable forbearance. The fact is that for those three decades, what he experienced was not forbearance but, rather, isolation, brutality and horrific living conditions that caused the TB which was later to cause him repeated respiratory illnesses.
Nevertheless, if education had shaped him, it was his prison that allowed him to shape the future. He dreamed, he thought, he reflected, he grew and he wrote. Gradually, interest in this lone black prisoner moved beyond South Africa to the wider world, and his case became an international cause celebre.
Songs were written about him. Awards were made to him, even though he could not attend the functions at which he was celebrated.
His very helplessness became his greatest strength, his invisibility the force which made the world familiar with his face and his ideas. He personified the struggle against colonialism and apartheid.
If surviving prison was an achievement, becoming what Mandela became as a result of his prison years was a miracle. He emerged from incarceration filled with hope, wisdom and a new gentleness. He negotiated, mediated and – like Lincoln – sought to turn his enemies into partners.
He became a religious figure in an irreligious time; someone to be visited, listened to, learned from. As Nelson Mandela faces into his final hours one thing is assured. His name will resonate, not for decades, but for centuries.