By the time of his death, Mandela was revered more as a pop star-like celebrity than as a politician and the tributes paid at the time hailed him as little short of a secular saint, single-handedly responsible for healing a divided South Africa in a spirit of unity and reconciliation.
There was some truth among the hyperbole in these encomiums, but they also skipped over the darker side of Mandela’s character.
For example, few mentioned that for much of his life Mandela was a hardened communist who as a young man decorated his home with pictures of Stalin and Lenin.
Would we look so kindly on someone who idolised Hitler in the same way? I think not, yet Soviet Russia was a blood-soaked tyranny on a par with Nazi Germany. International Socialism and National Socialism are two sides of the same statist, soul-destroying coin.
Also airbrushed from Mandela’s past was his role in the foundation of the terrorist organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, which was responsible for a wave of bombings that claimed many civilian lives.
Some of these atrocities happened when Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island and therefore supposedly hors de combat. But he bears a heavy responsibility for the ANC’s abandonment of non-violence in favour of the “armed struggle” – a left-wing euphemism for indiscriminate bombings and assassinations.
Mandela was also guilty of misplaced loyalty by being a firm friend and defender of such monsters as Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro.
Admirers are on firmer ground with Mandela’s exceptional determination not to give in to bitterness and recrimination after 27 years in apartheid jails.
His personal courtesy and dignity were never in question. He was known to share his food with his police escort and helped his prison warders with their essays. He was fluent in Afrikaans after studying the language in order to communicate in a respectful manner with his political opponents.
His true claim to greatness came after his release from jail in 1990 when he held out the hand of friendship to South Africa’s Boer community.
In one remarkable gesture of reconciliation he wore a Springbok jersey, once a hated symbol of apartheid, during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 shortly after his election as president.
The uncomfortable fact that this happened at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where just seven years earlier Umkhonto we Sizwe terrorists had set off a car bomb killing two spectators, was entirely glossed over.
An often overlooked fact is that the changes in South Africa came at a time when the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed, easing the fears of the white population of a takeover by the sort of Marxist tyranny which brought neighbouring Zimbabwe to its knees.
To his credit Mandela seized this opportunity with both hands and achieved a transformational change by dedicating himself to democracy and the rule of law – the very antithesis of his earlier authoritarian beliefs. Perhaps he had learned the error of his ways?
As a result we were treated to incredible images of tens of thousands of black people, patiently waiting in line outside the ballot venues for the chance to vote for their government for the first time in their lives.
Sadly, the dreams of those heady days have not been realised. Today, South Africa is a corrupt, poverty-stricken, crime-ridden kleptocracy ruled over with naked greed by Mandela’s ANC successors.
But we shouldn’t let that detract from Mandela’s achievement. The end of apartheid had all the makings of a bloody civil war which would certainly have claimed the lives on many thousands.
The fact that didn’t happen and that instead we witnessed a largely peaceful transition to democracy owes much to Mandela’s courage and determination not to give in to vindictiveness.
And for this reason alone Mandela deserves his place among the political greats of the 20th Century – alongside Gandhi, Churchill, Roosevelt, Reagan and Thatcher.