So much praise has been heaped on Nelson Mandela that it may be useful to pick out his defining virtues from all the dazzling emotional clutter.

Just seeing him as a wonderfully humane and even saintly leader misses the complex core of a master statesman.

He was, of course, both humane and probably even saintly, but like another giant of history, he was also a shrewd and smoothly manipulative politician with a keen strategic grasp of pragmatic possibilities.

Not for nothing has he been called the "Lincoln of Africa" and likened to the most revered president in U.S. history.

But we shouldn't overlook the fact that both leaders combined exceptional generosity of spirit with gritty political skills.

They were able to summon forth the better angels of human nature without ever losing sight of the flawed and power-obsessed character of so many of those they had to convince and lead through desperate times.

Abraham Lincoln had to end a civil war that often seemed unwinnable; in turning the page on apartheid, Mandela had to prevent one that looked unavoidable.

In an earlier century, the U.S. president had to find a formula to end slavery in a way his supporters could accept; Mandela had to reconcile former blood enemies around a vision that both could embrace.

Sparing the world

As time passes we must never lose sight of how much horror Mandela's mastery spared the world.

It's difficult to imagine now, but back in the 1970s and '80s, the prospect of a peaceful end to South Africa's racist apartheid system seemed like pure fantasy.

The white minority that oppressed the 80 per cent of those people of colour who made up the rest of the country were both unyielding and militarily highly capable.

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A member of the Internal Stability Unit points a machine gun at ANC supporters outside Durban in April 1994, less than two weeks before the election that month that brought Mandela and the ANC to power. (Reuters)

White Afrikaners in particular, descendants of Dutch settlers who had farmed the land for over 340 years, weren't about to leave or go soft — even as consumer boycotts and other sanctions were directed at them in much of the Western world.

Rock-hard followers of exceptionally tough leaders, they felt a duty to defend what they saw as their sacred homeland with an intensity that was often compared to Israelis for the Holy Land.

Far more likely than peace was a black-versus-white conflagration that would wreck South Africa and inflame the whole continent (perhaps literally, for South Africa then had nuclear weapons, which have since been scrapped).

That's why the two great surprises of my reporting life were the fall of Communism and the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa, largely under Mandela's guidance.

The 'heroic age'

For the majority of South Africans, the decades from 1960 to the 1990s represent what's been called "the heroic age."

After the early resistance was launched, morphing from mass protest to armed struggle in the '60s, neither Mandela nor the African National Congress he symbolized during his 27 years in apartheid's prisons broke under the oppression.

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Mandela shows then U.S. president Bill Clinton the view from the cell on Robben Island in which Mandela spent 17 of his 27 years incarcerated by the former South African government. (Reuters)

Nor did it endlessly pursue the kind of bloody rebellion that refuses compromise, as is so common elsewhere in the world today.

Four years before his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela began negotiations with the white government of the almost tyrannical P.W. Botha (the saint and the crocodile, as the pair was once described).

Putting whatever personal anger he felt aside, Mandela used his enormous skills to draw the regime step by step into profound electoral and other reforms that culminated in a bloodless end to oppression, and to his election in 1994 as the modern country's first black president.

Bolstered by one of the world's more advanced constitutions, South Africa, despite its many problems and inequities, still enjoys a rule of law, free elections and strong human rights codes that the once oppressed and their former oppressors forged together.

Bringing together a fiercely divided nation — by making former enemies feel like they are all winners, responsible for a new beginning — is one of the rarest feats of leadership.

As author John Carlin, one of the most perceptive writers on Mandela, notes, this kind of achievement is so rare because it is so contradictory to normal politics.

"What ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting differences and fuelling antagonism. Mandela sought it by appealing to people's common humanity."

One of the examples Carlin cites is the modern South African national anthem, which splices together — at Mandela's insistence and over the objections of many of his ANC colleagues — a special song from black protest rallies with an old hymn of the white settlers.

Only an exceptionally self-disciplined person could have overcome the kind of resentments Mandela must have struggled with through years of abuse, insults and imprisonment to reach that special plane where that kind of reconciliation was possible.

It surely wasn't easy. In prison he meditated every day while seeking signs of common humanity even among white guards — some of whom later became close friends.

He discovered, in the power of his ample charm, a willingness to respect all and an ability to make even old foes feel better about themselves. At the same time he made it clear his core values were unshakable.

"Mandela was the quintessential political animal; he did everything with a clear political purpose," Carlin writes, "The reason why he stands head and shoulders above every leader of his generation is that he showed it is possible to be a great politician and a great human being at the same time — the seamless convergence of magnanimity and power."

Bedrock virtues

One wishes that Mandela's example would elevate not only our own political discourse but also the thinking of so many modern insurgents who enlist extreme violence as the only way to seize what they want.

For the world needs to remember another lesson that Mandela's struggle provides.

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South African President F.W. de Klerk and then-African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela hold up their medals and certificates after they were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid. (Scanfoto Scanfoto / Reuters)

He was able to draw even the toughest Afrikaner politicians into his orbit because of the absence of innocent blood on his hands.

As a liberation movement, the ANC leadership rejected brutal mass attacks on innocent civilians in favour of acts of sabotage on government installations and, futilely, the occasional direct confrontation with security forces.

It sought and ultimately achieved support across the races and from the wider world. And in the end, it dealt with past crimes through its truth and reconciliation commission (headed by the indomitable Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu), not summary executions.

On a personal note, I only met Mandela once, in the mid-1990s, when he was probably the most famous figure on Earth.

Before our CBC interview I was tense, wondering how I'd fill in the inevitable apologetic small talk as the technicians set up — always a torturous moment when a world leader is sitting across from you.

I knew Mandela had been a promising boxer as a young man, so I threw in a comment about our mutual interest in the sport and to my immense relief he slipped effortlessly into a chat about old ring heroes we both admired, men known not only for their skill but that strange aura of serenity that great fighters had.

He could not have been more considerate or more natural.

Like everyone who met him, I was put at ease and came away feeling rather better about myself and, well, everything in general.

Years later I had trouble adequately explaining to people the extraordinary magnetism of his deep serenity.

Then I read that one of the toughest white government officials, who had been secretly negotiating with Mandela while he was still in prison, was once moved to tears as he later described the man he'd faced as "the incarnation of the great Roman virtues, gravitas, honestas, dignitas"

Yes, that says it better, for the serenity had a bedrock foundation of unshakable virtue, which may be what we most need to take from the legacy he left.