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Former South African president Nelson Mandela.

PAUL MCARLANE/Reuters

It is hard to imagine that anyone alive today would be more widely mourned than Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at the age of 95. He was a universal hero.

As Winston Churchill was to steadfastness in the face of a tyrannical foe, as Mahatma Gandhi was to non-violent resistance, Mr. Mandela was to reconciliation with an oppressor.

Revenge, hatred, bitterness, acrimony, war – these are commonplace between peoples, even within peoples. The individual who can overcome these primal forces with an affirmative message, and thereby shape his times for good, not evil, is more valuable to the world than all the gold in Africa's mines. The esteem in which Mr. Mandela is held is evidence that people everywhere yearn for someone who can build bridges where they have never been thought possible.

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The moment that Mr. Mandela emerged from his 27 years in prison in 1990 remains etched on the world's memory, a moment equivalent in its power to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall three months earlier. Seemingly invincible tyrannies could crumble; the people they sought to crush could step into the sunlight with a breadth of vision no one could have anticipated.

For Canadians, Mr. Mandela's freedom had a special meaning. The Canadian government, under the Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, had given strong support to sanctions against the South African regime of racial separation known as apartheid. Shortly after his release, Mr. Mandela granted an interview to CBC-TV's Barbara Frum from his home in Soweto, and Canadians received an intimate look at a leader whose humility, warmth, sense of humour and iron principle were so vivid and appealing.

Mr. Mandela addressed the Canadian Parliament, a rare honour for someone who was not a foreign head of government or a head of state, and at a time when he could not yet speak to his own country's Parliament.

Just over a decade later, Canada named Mr. Mandela an honorary citizen, citing his "great moral leadership to South Africa and all humanity."

His personal discipline was astounding. There is a wonderful scene in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, toward the end of his incarceration, when he and his fellow leaders-to-be were sharing a barracks-style room, and he woke at 5 a.m. to do his daily push-ups, much to the displeasure of his peers, whose sleep he was disturbing.

It was a discipline that enabled him to study law as a University of London External student while in jail, to learn Afrikaans, the language of most of the white minority, and to overcome his personal bitterness at the estrangement from his wife, children and community during his imprisonment.

When he was asked about prosecuting whites from the apartheid regime, he replied, "Prosecution? I'm not interested in prosecution. I'm interesting in building a nation."

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Today his South Africa, though it still faces terrible problems of crime and inequality, lives by the rule of law, and whites and blacks work and play side by side. And because Mr. Mandela stepped away after one term as president, he set an example that should discourage anyone tempted to be president for life in that country.

The many successes of post-apartheid South Africa show that country following Mr. Mandela's lead and living up to his dream. And the failures have been those of failing to live up to his ideals of democracy, the rule of law and respect for all citizens. Even when he was out of office and retired, his presence has been watching over those who followed him. He has been the conscience of the nation, perched on the shoulder of imperfect leaders.

Few leaders in any era can be said to have left their corner of the world so much better than they found it. And few can be said to have left such a deep impact on ordinary people everywhere, and to have been so loved. Mr. Mandela's human virtues speak loudest. Humorous and self-effacing though he was, he showed that individuals have the power to overcome history, and live together for their own good, and the good of their community.

He built a modern nation on his insights into his own soul. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom," he said, "I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." And "resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

Nelson Mandela speaks to all places because he was an exemplar of so many universal values: the power of literacy; the eternal need to live in liberty; and, above all, the indestructible force of human dignity, which all peoples share, and which gives hope that the bitterest enemies can reconcile and live in peace and mutual respect.

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