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Nelson Mandela was blessed with a long life. South Africa was even more blessed that he was. If he had died in 1993, South Africa in 2013 would not be a beacon for the rest of the continent, a moral pole in world politics or a leader of the third world; it would simply be another sad African morass.

As apartheid died, the fissures in South Africa ran so deep, the tensions so high, that no one gave it the slightest chance of pulling through.

The whites were belligerent or preparing to flee, taking their money and skills with them. The security establishment was using the Zulus to wreak havoc in Natal and the townships. The Indians feared for their future. Within the liberation movements, the PAC resented the pre-eminence of the ANC.

The ANC itself was divided between the Robben Islanders, cut off from the world for decades, the armed wing, under Chris Hani, and the exiles, men like Thabo Mbeki. The Communist Party drove the ANC’s agenda but had an independent existence, like the RSS with the BJP.

There was the United Democratic Front, which had led the Opposition when the ANC was banned, and whose leaders, remarkable young men, were cult figures. There was Winnie Mandela, Mandela’s wife and, some thought, his muse, baying for blood. The armed cadres of the ANC had to be integrated into the army or be demobilised; elsewhere in Africa, this had failed. Majority rule was imminent, but no black, except in the Bantustans, had any experience of governance.

These were challenges on an apocalyptic scale. The civil wars raging next door, in Mozambique and Angola, had been set off by only a few of these problems, in milder form. Zimbabwe, unable to cope with the exodus of capital and skills, was going into terminal decline. All of these furies were coming together in South Africa in a perfect storm.

Into the eye of which stepped this extraordinary man, in whom, it soon became clear, everything that was weak, bitter or dross had been burnt away in the years on Robben Island. Like other saviours, he had withdrawn and had returned.

The tempest never broke, there was no capsize. The ambitions, hatreds and dissensions that would have ripped South Africa apart were sheathed because Mandela was simply too august, too Christ-like. Those who would have fought to get to the top, and torn each other down, bent their energies to building their country up under his smiling, benign presence.

He had a genius for symbolism, an almost fey sense of what the moment needed. In the lurid, almost psychedelic, shirts he started to wear, he was his rainbow nation.

At the closing session of Codesa-I (Convention for a Democratic South Africa), when President de Klerk, a decent man who had freed him, spoke about the ANC’s violence, Mandela rose and denounced apartheid and his regime with an anger before which de Klerk shrank. It was a collective catharsis for the oppressed, the televised moment when they and the world knew that whites could never again patronise others in South Africa.

But then, when South Africa won the rugby World Cup in Ellis Park, sacred Afrikaaner ground, there was Mandela, dressed in the Springbok jersey, handing it over to Francis Pienaar, an Afrikaaner hero playing the most Afrikaaner of sports, and winning the Boer diehards over with that gesture.

I had a ringside view of all this from 1991 to 1994 as high commissioner in Botswana, where India opened a mission in 1988 because, though when Mandela was in prison we had dealt with the ANC through Zambia, he sent word, once he was free, that he wanted it to be in Botswana. Even then, what Mandela wanted Mandela got, even if it meant a country opening a mission it did not really need.

He was sometimes called the black Gandhi (though he was no darker than the Mahatma), but the comparison does not necessarily flatter him. Gandhi blazed a trail which Mandela followed for a while, but the fork he then took led him on to a very different and more perilous path. Mandela fought with a regime and a system of an entrenched brutality that Gandhi escaped when he returned from South Africa to India.

When civil disobedience failed, Mandela turned to armed resistance. Two decades later, he embraced forgiveness and reconciliation. He had morality but no mantras; he suited his tactics to his times.

How absolutely he commanded obedience, how completely his country vibrated at his moral resonance, and how quickly he had become a statesman, became clear when in 1993 a white extremist killed Chris Hani, the commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC and after Mandela, far and away the most popular ANC leader. Mandela loved him like a son and saw him as his successor.

As soon as the news broke, it was assumed that pogroms against the whites would follow. The townships and Hani’s militia were like tinder. It needed a word to touch off an uncontrollable fire.

The word that went out was from Mandela. There would be no revenge. There was none. (Compare that courage and that moral authority with the craven and cynical pandering to blood-lust that encouraged the massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and of Muslims after Godhra.)

The whites knew then that they were safe in Mandela’s South Africa.

I carry two memories that sum up the man for me, the steel and the charm. In early 1993, my office got a call to say that the President wanted to meet me. At the President’s house, I was ushered into a room where I found Mandela, on an unannounced visit to Botswana, with President Masire, who was surprised to see me. Mandela was not.

“Mr President,” he said, “I have to talk to the Indian high commissioner,” and dismissed his host. It dawned on me that, even for Sir Ketumile Masire’s staff, when Mandela was in town, “President” meant the President of the ANC, which is what he then was.

Mandela said that the ANC needed money to fight the upcoming election. Since that was what we did not then have, I gave him the patter I had practised with others in the ANC — that we would advise them, train their cadres, teach them how to fight elections, etc, but, because of our own difficulties, money was short.

“That’s all very well, high commissioner,” said Mandela, eyes like flint. “Pakistan’s just had floods and it’s given me a million dollars. How much is India going to give me?” I can claim something few can: I’ve been blackmailed by a Nobel laureate.

The other memory is of Oliver Tambo’s funeral in a Johannesburg stadium, packed with 50,000 frenetic mourners, where India had been asked to deliver the eulogy for Asia. After I spoke, a little girl came up to me with a small ANC flag, which each speaker was being given. I bent down to take it from her and saw a strong brown hand on her shoulder.

I looked up and it was Mandela, his smile brighter than a thousand suns. He took the flag and knotted it like a scarf around my neck. When I got back to the hotel, I carefully eased it off without untying the knot. It’s always been in a drawer in my room since then, left as Mandela tied it. With his country as with my scarf — what Madiba put together no man should set asunder.

In the South Africa I returned to a decade later, everything had changed and nothing had. Blacks ruled but the whites still ran the economy. The poor remained desperate and crime had risen.

But though Mandela had retired, his spirit was everywhere. It was taken as a given that the South African way was Madiba’s way, that change would be as he wanted it — peaceful, ordered, democratic.

That is a legacy few leaders leave. A graveyard in South Africa is about to receive a man who was truly indispensable.

Satyabrata Pal, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, was India’s high commissioner in Botswana from 1991 to 1994, where his mandate included liaising with the African National Congress during South Africa’s transition to democracy. He later served as high commissioner in South Africa