This is not to say he was perfect, but for a man who spent one third of his life in prison, his lack of bitterness and vindictiveness is nothing short of saintly. Upon his release from prison he entered politics becoming the first black president of his country in 1994. He presided over the abolition of apartheid, and his graciousness toward his enemies and those who committed terrible crimes under apartheid led him to establish the committee of Truth and Reconciliation which extended legal absolution to those who repented of their abuses and crimes under the old regime. This was, as far as I know, an unprecedented move and was a truly remarkable act of grace, forgiveness, and healing.
CNN has an excellent retrospective of his life. Here are some excerpts:
Despite chronic political violence before the vote that put him in office in 1994, South Africa avoided a full-fledged civil war in its transition from apartheid to multiparty democracy. The peace was due in large part to the leadership and vision of Mandela and de Klerk.
"We were expected by the world to self-destruct in the bloodiest civil war along racial grounds," Mandela said during a 2004 celebration to mark a decade of democracy in South Africa.
"Not only did we avert such racial conflagration, we created amongst ourselves one of the most exemplary and progressive nonracial and nonsexist democratic orders in the contemporary world."
Mandela represented a new breed of African liberation leaders, breaking from others of his era such as Robert Mugabe by serving one term.
South Africa's fight for reconciliation was epitomized at the 1995 rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg, when it played heavily favored New Zealand.
As the dominant sport of white Afrikaners, rugby was reviled by blacks in South Africa. They often cheered for rivals playing their national team.
Mandela's deft use of the national team to heal South Africa was captured in director Clint Eastwood's 2009 feature film "Invictus," starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the white South African captain of the rugby team.
Before the real-life game, Mandela walked onto the pitch, wearing a green-and-gold South African jersey bearing Pienaar's number on the back.
"I will never forget the goosebumps that stood on my arms when he walked out onto the pitch before the game started," said Rory Steyn, his bodyguard for most of his presidency.
"That crowd, which was almost exclusively white ... started to chant his name. That one act of putting on a No. 6 jersey did more than any other statement in bringing white South Africans and Afrikaners on side with new South Africa."