Nelson Mandela, icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, founding president of democratic South Africa and probably the world’s best-known public figure, died on 5 December at his home in Johannesburg. The ‘father of the nation’ had been bed-ridden with a recurrent lung infection since June. He returned to his Houghton home, albeit with 24-hour medical care, amid reports that he was in a ‘permanent vegetative state‘. As last year drew to a close, old comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle visited him to say their goodbyes.

Mandela, who was often respectfully known by other names such as Tata (father) and Madiba (his clan name), was 95 and had been increasingly frail for some years. Nevertheless, his death appeared to stun many people and prompted a global outpouring of grief. In Britain, the BBC interrupted prime-time programmes to switch to a live broadcast by the South African president, Jacob Zuma. ‘Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,’ Zuma said. ‘Although we knew this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.’

By a strange coincidence, Mandela’s daughter Zindzi only learned of her father’s death while watching a Hollywood biopic about him, during the royal premiere in London of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Though Mandela’s fragile state of heath was widely known, the reaction of one overwhelmed South African in the audience that night was not unusual: ‘I cried for about 10 minutes.’

There were chaotic scenes when an estimated 100,000 people tried to see him on the final day of his body lying in state. His memorial service, with more than 90 heads of government and state flying in, was even more of a media circus, with President Barack Obama stealing the show, cheers for the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and even the last white president, FW de Klerk, while Zuma was roundly booed (footage and sound of the president’s utter humiliation was censored by the South African Broadcasting Corporation). The event descended into outright farce as it emerged that the sign-language interpreter standing beside the speakers was making it all up with meaningless gestures.

As the Guardian noted, not even Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were lionised by so many world leaders from so many points on the ideological spectrum. ‘The soul of Africa has departed,’ the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka declared, while Desmond Tutu said: ‘The sun will rise tomorrow. It will not be as bright as yesterday. But life will carry on.’ The archbishop emeritus said his friend had ‘taught a divided nation to come together‘.

For South African journalist Farouk Chothia, Mandela did not just give him the vote, he ‘helped restore our dignity’. ‘We are who we are because of you … you personified the black people of South Africa. Have we taken revenge against those who oppressed us or tortured and killed our friends and relatives?’

He was all things to all people: in China, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, both the Communist regime (Mandela as anti-imperialist inspired by Mao’s Little Red Book while in prison) and opposition activists (Mandela as a model of anti-authoritarian resistance) claimed him as their own.

On the evening of Mandela’s death, Obama made a nationwide address to Americans, declaring: ‘He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.’ He praised Mandela for giving ‘a sense of what people can do when they are guided by their hopes rather than their fears’ and with some of the rhetorical flourish for which he and the subject of his peroration are both known, described him as ‘a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.’

The White House has not always been so admiring: in a 1986 speech President Ronald Reagan accused the African National Congress (ANC) of encouraging communism, and declared that South Africa had no obligation to negotiate with an organisation intent on ‘creating a communist state’. Apartheid was clearly preferable to many on the American right and Reagan blocked the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid bill of 1986, which called for Mandela to be released, the ANC to be recognised, and sanctions and travel restrictions to be imposed on the South African government of PW Botha. However, Congress overrode the presidential veto, thanks to some Republican politicians such as Richard Lugar and Nancy Kasselbaum who were on the right side of history. Dick Cheney was not among them: George W Bush’s future vice-president voted against the bill and supported the veto when the bill went back to Congress. Astonishingly, the ANC remained on the US terrorism watch list until 2008.

The volte-face in many Republicans’ attitude to Mandela was mirrored in Britain’s Conservative party. Though David Cameron’s 1989 sanctions-busting trip to South Africa has lately been presented as a fact-finding mission, the prime minister’s jaunt was described by his Tory party boss at the time as ‘simply a jolly … just a little treat’. In 2006 Cameron distanced the Tories from their formerly close association with the apartheid regime (though not all Tories followed suit).

The praise lavished on ‘a true global hero’ after Mandela’s death (Cameron also told MPs: ‘Progress is not just handed down as a gift; it is won through struggle … Nelson Mandela was the embodiment of that struggle’) would have been unthinkable under his predecessor Margaret Thatcher. According to one of her close aides, she opposed apartheid more on the grounds that it was a sin against economic liberalism rather than a crime against humanity, fighting to block sanctions and the rest of the Commonwealth’s efforts to isolate the apartheid regime.

Asked about the ANC at the Vancouver Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1987, she famously described it as: ‘a typical terrorist organisation.’ At the same summit, her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, dismissed the suggestion that the ANC could ever achieve power: ‘It is cloud-cuckoo-land for anyone to believe that could be done.’

One of her backbench cheerleaders, the MP Teddy Taylor, declared Mandela ‘should be shot’. Another influential Thatcherite, her friend the Daily Express editor Larry Lamb, said in 1985 that Mandela’s unconditional release would be ‘a crass error‘. The boot boys of the Tory party during Thatcher’s time in office were the Federation of Conservative Students (one prominent member then is John Bercow, now Speaker of the House of Commons), who jeered at the anti-apartheid movement with the slogan: ‘Hang Nelson Mandela and all ANC terrorists.’

Thatcher ‘barely mentioned the plight of Nelson Mandela’ the Guardian said after Downing Street files were released in January of a meeting between Thatcher and President PW Botha in 1984: ‘Thatcher did not raise Mandela’s case at all during the four-hour official meeting at Chequers.’ She did ask Botha to release Mandela in a letter the following year, and right-wing commentators such as Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph and the blogger Guido Fawkes pointed to this as proof of her anti-apartheid credentials.

However, a closer reading of the full letter suggests that far from showing any sign of Thatcher’s ‘loathing of apartheid on moral grounds’, which one academic at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies claimed to see, the British prime minister instead regarded Mandela’s release as merely the best tactical move to head off sanctions—opposition to which had left Britain entirely isolated within the Commonwealth—and counter the growing international support for the more militant elements of the tripartite liberation movement, in which the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Cosatu trade union federation were partners with the ANC. ‘Obviously you cannot and will not allow outsiders to dictate the pace and scope of change within South Africa,’ she wrote in the letter. ‘A specific initiative to launch a political dialogue before the Commonwealth [Eminent Persons] Group gets far into its work would also be a skilful move,’ she added, referring to the high-powered team due to visit South Africa, led by Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo and Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. Releasing Mandela then was not a moral imperative but a means of retaking control of the process of change—British officials would have been keen to prevent a repeat of what had happened in Rhodesia, where London had been left behind by events and outflanked by the main players, from Ian Smith’s UDI in 1965 to Robert Mugabe’s victory in Zimbabwe’s first elections in 1980.

Amid a great outpouring of words as well as grief, we learned that among the more than 260 honorary degrees, umpteen busts, paintings and medals, Mandela had also been honoured with having a sub-atomic particle, and new species of sea slug, spider, fly and prehistoric woodpecker named after him. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory records honours such as the Congressional gold medal of honour—which President Bill Clinton, in his dedication speech, termed the highest honour the US could bestow—as well as a landfill site in Georgetown, Guyana, dedicated to Mandela. Everybody wanted a piece of him in his last years, it seemed. Among the thousands of tributes on the database are unwanted panegyrics from the state military conglomerate Armscor and the disgraced champion cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Newspapers and broadcasters revisited stories in the life of Rolihlahla (a name colloquially meaning ‘troublemaker’) Mandela that had been retold countless times but still felt good to read: his Xhosa upbringing in rural Transkei in a poor but nevertheless privileged junior line of the Thembu royal family, learning stick-fighting, ‘drinking milk straight from the udder of a cow’ as a bare-footed herdboy, and his transformation into an urban dandy with an eye for the women, then becoming the inspirational leader dubbed the Black Pimpernel as he eluded the police while travelling around the country in disguise to set up the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Anthony Sampson, the Drum editor who later helped him draft his Rivonia trial speech, said that in those early days many ANC sympathisers like himself wondered how much political substance Mandela possessed. But the bravura, defiant power of that epic speech Mandela gave from the dock—his last public words for 27 years—amply proved that the man had gravitas. It became one of the sustaining myths that nourished the liberation movement during his long imprisonment.

When he emerged again into the world, by now an old man, many wondered whether he was more useful to the cause in prison but his leadership skills had been honed over the years and became critical to the transition from apartheid. As the South African-born British politician Peter Hain said: ‘He came out of prison a senior statesman-in-waiting. He went into prison as a militant revolutionary leader.’ David James Smith, author of Young Mandela, said: ‘There was a purity about Mandela … He talked to commoners and kings in the same way. Everyone loves that he remembered names and took time to talk to everyone’

As Sampson’s biography notes, Mandela would seek to reach a consensus in cabinet but saw himself as a shepherd, directing his flock: ‘If one or two animals stray, you go out and draw them back to the flock. That’s an important lesson in politics.’ Tokyo Sexwale describes a cabinet meeting in 1994 on scrapping the hated Afrikaner song Die Stem as the country’s national anthem. Though all but Mandela were unanimous on adopting Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Save Africa), he recognised the symbolism of the song to the Afrikaners and insisted on adopting both as a musical reconciliation. ‘Nobody,’ Sexwale said, ‘raised a finger to object.’

This regal, somewhat autocratic attitude helped push through Mandela’s extremely controversial approach to the Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi in 1994 to end the blood-letting between Inkatha and the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. Mandela appointed Zuma, as the most senior Zulu in the ANC, to the KwaZulu-Natal cabinet to broker an enduring peace accord with Inkatha. Many MK fighters wanted to go to all-out war against a man they saw as a quisling. Alec Russell notes in Bring Me My Machine Gun that Harry Gwala, the militant ANC chief whip in the province and an SACP stalwart, warned Zuma—and by extension Mandela—that compromising with Buthelezi could make them the country’s Neville Chamberlain. Yet Mandela’s rapprochement succeeded and saved the day when the new country was staring into the abyss.

Mandela was just as prepared to wield his considerable influence to help resolve deeply entrenched violence abroad, such as mediating in Burundi (telling the parties: ‘Please join the modern world’), calling the key summit in 1999 that led to a peace accord in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and urging India and Pakistan to work for nuclear disarmament and negotiate over Kashmir. He called US policies in Afghanistan and Iran a threat to world peace and contrasted Nato’s intervention in Kosovo with western nations’ reluctance to help Sierra Leone and Rwanda. He even intervened in the case of Stephen Lawrence, a schoolboy in London whose racist murder police failed to pursue. Mandela never lost that burning sense of injustice: his speech in London on poverty declared that ‘massive poverty and obscene inequality … rank alongside slavery and apartheid. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.’ In a speech in Harlem in 1990, he pointed out the entrenched racism he could see in the US and elsewhere.

Christopher Alden, of the London School of Economics, says Mandela could be an honest broker where others could not, citing Indonesia as an example. In 1997, Mandela’s visit to the imprisoned East Timorese politician Gusmao in Jakarta, against President Suharto’s wishes, paved the way for a referendum and Gusmao’s release two years later. ‘He accrued a moral authority that transcended the ordinary politics that guide the worst conduct of political actors.’ Mandela could turn a blind eye to abuses too: his loyalty to the ANC’s supporters during its years in the political wilderness meant refusing to publicly condemn Muammar Gaddafi (but mediating between UK and Libya over the Lockerbie suspects) or Nigeria’s military regime. As Mandela told an American audience: ‘One of the mistakes the western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies.’

Denying the overwhelming scientific evidence on HIV/Aids was Thabo Mbeki’s greatest mistake; his insistence on quack cures such as beetroot and garlic in the worst-affected country in the world caused the unnecessary death of astaggering 300,000 South Africans, according to a Harvard study. So it is to Mandela’s everlasting credit that he challenged the stigma around the disease in 2005 by announcing that his only surviving son, Makgatho, had died of Aids. In fact, he began to turn the tide on providing antiretroviral drugs by speaking out at the Durban Aids conference in 2000. As he got frailer, he refused all engagements except those focusing on Aids. ‘It became the most important work of his foundation.’

Mandela’s undoubted charisma, authority and imposing physical presence had made him the perfect choice to front the ANC, as his old comrade and mentor Walter Sisulu recalled. But Sisulu also admitted that Mandela’s secret negotiations with the government had created problems within the ANC leadership. Another senior leader, Govan Mbeki, father of Thabo, strongly criticised Mandela’s refusal to consult his comrades and his pledge to the Nationalist party government not to divulge the existence of the negotiations.

For some critics, however, Mandela’s bridge-building went too far. Winnie Madikizela–Mandela, his former wife, said: ‘Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside.’ The writer and black consciousness advocate Andile Mngxitama said: ‘It’s not an exaggeration to say Mandela’s leadership style, characterised by accommodation with the oppressors, will be forgotten, if not rejected within a generation.’

Did the still unexplained assassination of Chris Hani, MK chief of staff and SACP leader, prevent the emergence of a more radical axis within the leadership? Could the father of the nation have been steered in a more radical direction by his younger rival during those years of painful compromise? He was perhaps the only liberation movement leader whose charisma and unifying influence bore comparison with Mandela’s. As the South African Mail & Guardian found, there is still a wistful longing for what might have been.

In a BBC Storyville documentary, Mandela, the Myth and Me, Khalo Matabane explored the reality gap between the legendary hero figure of his childhood and the dignified but despairing settlement that followed the negotiations. ‘Was the struggle for all or just a few?’ asks Matabane, who wonders why there were no Nuremberg trials rather than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ‘Where was the anger?’

‘We’re being asked to ‘just get over it’,’ Professor Pumla Gqola says in the film, adding: ‘Reconciliation without justice is itself injustice.’ Ronne Kasrils, MK’s intelligence chief, asks why they did not force the ‘vampire’ mining houses to pay restitution. But in part he answers himself as he describes cabinet meetings at which no one wanted to cross Mandela.

The journalist John Carlin describes Mandela’s ‘heroic sense of himself’. Did the world’s focus on Mandela obscure the struggle and sacrifice of the many? ‘The west sanctified him,’ said Tariq Ali, suggesting with a smile that as everybody treated Mandela like a god, he began to behave as one, ‘and gods can forgive.’

Did Mandela sell out on the struggle to achieve his dream of political victory, writers such as Sipho Hlongwanebegan to ask. A comment by a reader after his article summed up the frustration felt by many black South Africans not just with Mandela but the entire political settlement: ‘All the generals were acquitted, and something in me died in that day … I hope my unemployed children and suffering fellow Africans will find courage and heart to forgive me for not being brave enough to take the struggle to its ultimate conclusion.’

The family feuds over control of his legacy that erupted long before the patriarch died, an unseemly dispute over the bodies of relatives and revelations about his failings as a parent were reminders that even the beatified Mandela was far from perfect. But his courage, integrity, strength of purpose and charisma helped push South Africa in the right direction at its most critical moments.