If he's not the greatest leader of the 20th century then I'd like to know who is?
That's what former race relations conciliator Gregory Fortuin said to me on Radio Waatea earlier this week and I don't think he was far off the mark.
And yet he was only the official leader, ie, president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
In that short space of time he exhibited a set of values and principles that no other president or leader had shown probably in the history of the world.
Mandela extended his hand in terms of forgiveness to his enemies - the white South African government that had locked him up for 27 years.
Amazingly he forgave those racists despite being locked away in the prime of his life for daring to want the same rights as white South Africans.
That he was so fair, caring and sensible almost defies belief.
When they came to power throughout the world with coups and uprisings other leaders and rebels always had bloodshed.
There are numerous examples like when Robert Mugabe took over Zimbabwe or when Idi Amin took Uganda.
These leaders sought revenge for what had happened to them and murder and mayhem was part of their take-over.
Mandela had none of that.
Instead he worked with the enemy.
In many cases he promoted them because he knew the only way forward had to be through reconciliation and not revenge.
It was an amazing exhibition of forgiveness and kindness, unmatched and unprecedented.
I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa as a broadcaster in 1994 and only missed out doing an interview with Mandela because he fell sick.
But in 1995 I was one of the lucky few to meet him when he spoke at St Matthew-in-the-City church in Auckland city.
I'll never forget his smiling face which lit up the church that day.
At the time I was involved in Maori music.
My band Moana and the Moahunters appropriately sang reggae legend Jimmy Cliff's song Rebel in Me.
Mandela seemed overwhelmed with their rendition.
That was a fabulous day with people like my uncle Syd Jackson, John Minto and Ripeka Evans in attendance.
The icing on the cake for me was when Hone Harawira did a spontaneous haka as Mandela left the church.
Hone had missed out on a seat in the church so was a bit grumpy being left out.
But in typical Harawira fashion he grabbed the moment.
Mandela seemed spellbound watching Hone proudly perform Ka Mate Ka Mate.
For Hone and myself to have been able to share the briefest of moments with the greatest leader of our lifetime is something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
No reira i te rangatira Nelson Mandela, takoto mai, moe mai.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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