Challenging times often produce larger-than-life leaders. In the 20th century, the story of the catastrophic world-wide calamity that was World War II cannot be told apart from the heroic leadership of Britain's Winston Churchill and our own Franklin Roosevelt. It has often been observed that few leaders in the post-war era - the whole second half of the 20th century - displayed comparable stature.
But at least once exception was Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), who died today. Mandela was - to use an absurdly overused and much misused but here appropriate word - the iconic figure of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle. After 27 years of harsh imprisonment, he emerged to lead his people to freedom and create a new nation. His commitment to a peaceful transition to majority rule and the building of a multi-racial society facilitated a degree of reconciliation seldom achieved elsewhere and made possible only by the force of his own personality and his profound moral sense of the meaning and value of honorable reconciliation with one's enemies. As free South Africa's first President, he - like George Washington in another place and time - set the much needed (and seldom seen in Africa) example of peacefully leaving office and handing over power while still alive.
The people of South Africa have lost the Father of their country. The rest of the world has lost a moral model of the use of power to transcend bitterness, to unite rather than to divide - a lesson for all of us in our personal relations and especially for all the leaders and would-be leaders of nations in this new and already so troubled century.