How can it be said of a man who spent nearly 30 years in a jail cell, that he lived a full life?

The isolation, the loneliness, the forced hard labour, the grinding daily pain of solitude - it was all carefully designed to break the human spirit of the entombed. But it didn't work in Nelson Mandela's case.

In his case, it couldn't be made to work.

His 95 years on earth could just barely contain the fullness of his life and the grandeur of his spirit.

It used to be a serious crime to keep a picture of Nelson Mandela in any South African dwelling. People went to jail for doing so. Yet the poor and the wretched of the Earth in their fetid townships and in the racist cities kept his picture - if not on their mantels, in their hearts.

'People can take a lot from you. They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things you have to give away. I decided not to give them away.' - Nelson Mandela

Mandela once summed up his experience in prison in a conversation with former American President Bill Clinton.

"People can take a lot from you," he said. "They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things you have to give away. I decided not to give them away. And neither should you."

In my lifetime there have been a few, not many, people who have truly changed a bit of their world through their personal courage. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John 23rd, Lech Walesa, and the shopping bag man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square.

But Mandela overshadows them, in that he transformed an entire political system, an entire country.

It is now only dimly remembered by many how pernicious the apartheid system of South Africa was.

Sunday Edition

On The Sunday Edition starting at 9 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 8, with Michael Enright:

  • A former executive with the U.S. National Security Agency talks about the whistle-blowers of international cyber-spying. Thomas Drake was himself a whistle-blower; he was charged but never convicted.
  • Nelson Mandela: An Audio History. The story of the struggle against Apartheid, told through rare sound recordings.
  • Following a series of suicides by Canadian veterans, Senator Romeo Dallaire talks with Michael about his own bout with PTSD.

Blacks were kept in terrible conditions in bantustans or townships. They could not work, travel, marry, go to school or get medical attention without identification papers - the hated pass laws.

Police and the truly repugnant BOSS (Bureau of State Security) used terror and torture, and in some cases - Sharpeville, for example - outright murder and massacre.

For many of his imprisoned years, Mandela was considered a terrorist. Thanks to the efforts of the South African government he became, in the eyes of much of the world, a pariah.

For example, in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed a bill which would have seen Mandela released and the African National Congress recognized as a genuine political entity. It was vetoed of course, by Ronald Reagan. And still crowing, even this week, about his vote against the release of Mandela is the former U.S. vice-president, the Wyoming zombie Dick Cheney.

In this country, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had to fight  organized business, the bankers and even some in his own party in his crusade to break down apartheid. He had to fight Margaret Thatcher, teaching her in the process that extirpating racism took precedence over international trade.

Incidentally, nothing Mulroney did or didn't do subsequently will ever detract from his righteous anger at apartheid.

There's been a lot of talk this week, much of it cant, about how we will not see Mandela's like again.

I disagree.

I am willing to bet that somewhere in South Africa there is a very young boy or a very young girl who will be the next Mandela. Or the parent of the next Mandela.

Probably not in my lifetime. But the moral force-field of courage, compassion and imagination that made Nelson Mandela what he was can never really disappear.

[Michael Enright is the host of CBC Radio One's The Sunday Edition.]