Nelson Mandela’s lifelong fight for freedom, justice and equality influenced generations of political leaders around the globe.

Nelson Mandela was routinely regarded by Americans as one of the "most admired" people in the world, according to decades of Gallup polls. Photo: Reuters

Nelson Mandela is a legend. He witnessed the entire history of the 20th century, including the peak and end of colonialism, two World Wars, a Cold War, and the new era that started in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He uniquely combined vision and experience and, in so doing, influenced a generation of world leaders, including those in both Russia and the U.S.

Now that he has passed away, his name will become as significant as Mahatma Gandhi. Every epoch needs its heroes. And Mandela, with his charisma and authority, was obviously a global figure and an example for many.

When Nelson Mandela turned 95 in July, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave one of the most glowing tributes to the great leader. “Your name is inseparably linked with an entire epoch of Africa's modern history that heralded the building of the new and democratic Republic of South Africa,” Putin said. He also praised Mandela’s role in developing ties between Russia and South Africa. And President Obama also paid tribute to Mandela, “Let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived—a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

So what will we remember most about Mandela’s legacy?

First of all, we will remember Mandela’s consistency in fighting for freedom, even while in prison, which gave hope to millions around the world. At times, Mandela moved away from Gandhi’s principles of non-violence to champion armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Yet, he ended up as a symbol of the peaceful transformation of an entire nation.

Mandela solved one of the major problems of the past century: At what point does the fight for freedom transform into mere violence? Mandela managed to pass this test brilliantly, eventually becoming the leader who stopped the civil war between the black and white populations in his country.

Another global principle which Mandela professed was equality. Without him, the movement for equal rights of the black population around the world – be it in South Africa or the United States – would not be complete. It is noteworthy that he realized the danger of reverse discrimination. He once mentioned that he was campaigning neither for the rights of black people nor the rights of white people, but simply for the equality of all.

Thirdly, Mandela showed an example of nation-building. He overcame a major split between the majority and minority and, with his art of compromise, cemented the people of South Africa, uniting them with a common goal of developing the country and maintaining its leading position in the world. He has managed to perform this task without resorting to extreme ideologies, but rather, through a philosophy of common efforts to the progress. He was not only a politician but also a true statesman whose social and economic reforms were more than mere slogans – and he proved to the world that such style of leadership is viable and successful.

Fourthly, the former South African president contributed significantly in promoting the value of civil society and the fight for civil rights. And thus, he embodied another global trend – the growing role of the “third sector” in forming the international agenda. He revealed that it was not only the power of the government that could rule, but also the power of the people and their will.

Finally, Nelson Mandela did a lot to promote reconciliation around Africa. He worked as a mediator in conflicts, he strengthened institutions like the Organization of African Unity and the African Union, and he raised the prestige of South Africa and its peacekeeping units.

The memory of Mandela will also stay in the hearts of many people around the globe for his unprecedented modesty and wisdom. Unlike many African heads of states, he never clung to power and peacefully passed his post to a democratically elected successor. Being a son of a tribal leader, he could have followed the example of many from the nation’s privileged elite, but he preferred the path of suffering for the sake of his nation. His entire life is a guidebook for modern politicians.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.