That was long after Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who released Mandela after a stunning 27 years in prison and worked with him to end apartheid. It is a tribute to both men that, while never the chummy buddies depicted in some photographs, they transcended their differences and worked with the circumstances that history had left them.
In that mission, Mandela's orderly transition of power when his term ended in 1999 was just as valuable as his election. In a continent where postcolonial democracy has been defined too often as "one person, one vote, one time," Mandela would not try to be a president-for-life.
For that, I think credit goes to two qualities that gave Mandela the tools he needed to make history: his education and his deep faith as a lawyer in the rule of law. He rose from village life to be the only black law student in his class at the University of Witwatersrand, the nation's top university and a launching pad for his later activism.
Even under the daily oppression of the apartheid system of racial segregation, he saw in the law a valuable tool for both change and stability, depending on how you used it, and he used it to build a new South Africa.
"It is no coincidence that in the years since Mandela's release so much of Africa has turned toward democracy and the rule of law," wrote President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana in a New York Times op-ed. "His utilization of peace as a vehicle of liberation showed Africa that if we were to move beyond the divisiveness caused by colonization, and the pain of our self-inflicted wounds, compassion and forgiveness must play a role in governance."