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There come some great souls to the world, a few for the ages, with lives of lasting meaning, lives that lead history. Nelson Mandela was one. He will be known for human dignity for generations to come. He taught us how to deal with racism. His story of courage, compassion, endurance, mercy and love will be told for as long as people need hope.

I was Canada's ambassador to South Africa from 1991 to 1993. Mr. Mandela had been free for a year, white rule was ending, violence spreading and a peaceful transition to majority rule a far from certain prospect. The ANC, with political and technical support from Canada, was preparing, fitfully, to take power. At CODESA, the Congress on a Democratic South Africa, the terms of the sharing and the transfer of power were hammered out in peace which might well otherwise, without Mr. Mandela, have been written in blood.

My work had me in touch with that great man regularly. We discussed prime minister Brian Mulroney's sustained leadership against apartheid at the UN and in the Commonwealth. We reviewed the progress of the peace accord and the risk of its violent rupture. We negotiated the details of Canada's technical assistance (to which he paid close attention) with a team that included a young Alison Redford on legal, stars like veteran mandarin Al Johnson to help reform the civil service and Bank of Canada governor John Crow.

Once, memorably, I brought him retired prime minister Pierre Trudeau, visiting the very week of a big win for peace in South Africa, in the last all-white vote there, when they did the right thing, two thirds voting "Yes" in the referendum on President de Klerk's reforms, "Yes" for an end at last to apartheid. There was drama every day.

I have to check my notes for much of the substance of my meetings with Mr. Mandela. My powerful memories are much more personal. He never forgot my wife Sheila, I recall, or ever failed to ask after her by name. He was famous around the world, admired and beloved, but his charisma was not intimidating. There was great comfort in his company. I knew I was lucky to be there and hoped to do my best, but I don't recall nervous tension. I remember pleasure, the generosity of his presence, that eloquent face, that lifting smile, those wise eyes. He was a big man, with fine bearing. His hands were wide, fleshy, strong. You could imagine him boxing again. I can remember his hand on my shoulder to this day.

When on parting he told you – slowly, with care and all the time in the world – that he had "gained hope and strength" from the meeting, you believed his every word. His charisma was inclusive, disarming. There was bedrock, but not sharp edges. He was profoundly pacifying, his credentials peerless, beyond compare, inciting no competition. There was peace around him, the peace, I'd imagine, of the court of a great and beloved king.

His lessons were hard, though. In South Africa's real world, victims might get some truth – and the measure of reconciliation it bore – but they would get little justice; lives pass, it is soon too late. Yet they must, he said, "leave bitterness and hatred behind" – as he'd done, after 27 years in jail. "Resentment is like drinking poison," he taught, "and hoping it will kill your enemies."

Mr. Mandela knew the power of hope – and the origins of his: "I am fundamentally optimistic. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun and keeping one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death."

Nelson Mandela chose the way that leads to human dignity. In the skies of our kind, his star will mark that way for ever.

Christopher Westdal was Canada's ambassador to South Africa from 1991 to1993.