Individuals win fame, fortune, respect and admiration for all kinds of deeds, heroic and not so heroic. In our celebrity obsessed age it is not that difficult to become an apparently important figure. Those who wear the badge of supposed fame don't always deserve it, or keep it for very long.
Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday night at the age of 95, earned his admiration and respect the hard way. It is easy to forget that he did not always enjoy the global support and love of his later years. Some politicians heaping praise upon Mr Mandela today belong to political parties that viewed him and the African National Congress through which he fought South African apartheid as little more than terrorists a generation or more ago.
But Mr Mandela won the respect and admiration of the world not only because his cause was just but because of the incredible – some would say superhuman – magnanimity which he showed to his oppressors who incarcerated him in jail for 27 years. Freed from prison in 1990 he immediately began negotiating with the white rulers of South Africa who had oppressed him and his people for so long. For many people revenge would have been their first thought, for Mr Mandela it was progress towards freedom, not just for black South Africans but for all South Africans. The Nobel Peace Prize – which he shared with F.W. de Klerk – followed in 1993 and a year later the presidency of South Africa.
It is hard to imagine, even for those who are old enough to remember it, the quite appalling impact of apartheid on the black population of South Africa. To modern youngsters in multi-cultural Britain the idea that a group of people would be treated differently and treated as inferiors, simply because of the colour of their skin is outrageous and unthinkable. Mr Mandela became, in his later years, a powerful reminder that such oppression on racial grounds is not only unacceptable, but that it can be overcome.
It is no exaggeration to say, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, that Nelson Mandela is – or as we must now say, was – the single most admired and single most respected international statesman in the world. It is also true that at the height of his powers, his smile lit up the world and his deep sense of justice was matched by a huge sense of fun. After all he endured he could have borne a grudge. He never did. He was and remains, a hero for the world.