Nelson Mandela is now waging what mere mortals would see as life’s greatest battle: the one to stay alive. But Mandela, a larger-than-life figure, would probably not see it that way; for him the battle was always about something that transcended his person.

And he joined it with supreme courage and dignity, in and out of the prisons to which he was confined for twenty-seven years, more than a quarter of his life, in three different locations: Robben Island, where he occupied a tiny cell for 18 years, and at the Poolsmoor and Victor Verster jails. When, defying the odds, and most likely his own expectations, he emerged a free man on February 11, 1990, his bearing was graceful; his visage bore no trace of bitterness. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is unlike most politicians’ life narratives. Like the man himself, it is devoid of self-pity and grandiosity and brims with magnanimity and wisdom.

This is remarkable in itself, for Mandela had every right to be an angry man. But he isn’t an ordinary man. He walked out of prison and immediately reentered the public political arena (though even in captivity he was part of national and international politics), calling for reconciliation and engaging South Africa’s white-minority leadership with the aim of dismantling the system of apartheid. The ending of apartheid owed to Mandela’s moral authority. The magnitude of that achievement, and Mandela’s place in history more generally, cannot be appreciated without a basic understanding of what South Africa’s apartheid system amounted to; that apartheid is fading into the mists of time it makes it all the more necessary to take a detour to provide context.

A comprehensive system of racial segregation undergirded by a plethora of intricate laws, apartheid had been in place since 1948 national elections, with Hendrik Verwoerd, who served as Minister of Native Affairs and then as Prime Minister from 1958 until being stabbed to death in parliament in September 1966, serving as chief architect. Apartheid, which can loosely be translated as “apartness,” had many aspects, but the common denominator, and overall purpose, was the systematic separation of whites (sixty percent were Afrikaners, the descendants of seventeenth century Dutch settlers; the rest English) and nonwhites. It was mind-numbing in its precision. There were laws enforcing residential segregation (the “Group Areas Act”); prohibiting sexual intercourse between whites and nonwhites (the “Immorality Act”); mandating separate educational institutions and specifying the content of textbooks used in nonwhite schools; requiring separate restrooms, bus stops, and ambulances; and defining the guidelines for commercials featuring white and nonwhite actors. And that’s just a sample.

Blacks required authorization stamps on their internal passports, which they had to have on their person at all times, in order to be lawfully present in white areas. Black farm workers had to seek written permission from their employers before they could accept better-paying jobs in cities. Those who had urban jobs were, depending on their classification for employment purposes, confined to townships, single-sex dormitories, or “homelands.” In one form or the other, all blacks were deemed to be citizens for these “homelands,” which the South African authorities claimed were sovereign entities. Because whites constituted 15 percent of the population but controlled 85 percent of the land (and the best parts) this effectively made blacks foreigners in their own country. Other nonwhites (Asians and so-called coloreds, or people of mixed race) endured daily discrimination, but the oppression faced by the South African black was in a different league altogether.

As Joseph Lelyveld has recounted in his superb book, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, to its defenders (here it should be stressed that numerous courageous whites spoke out against and protested the system) apartheid was just because it rested on a multitude of laws. To defy it, therefore, was to engage in illegal conduct, or worse, sedition. It followed that to punish such acts was legitimate, an example of the rule of law in action. That the system was enforced not just by blatantly unfair laws but also through the systematic use of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial murder (the September 1977 slaying of the black nationalist Steve Biko while in police custody was perhaps the most notorious example) was omitted from this curious legalistic defense.

Most whites, as Lelyveld shows so adeptly, knew next to nothing about the daily lives of blacks (among the features of which were poverty, long commutes to work, police harassment and daily indignities, separation from families for those working in cities far from home) and yet opined freely on the black “character,” “psyche” and preferences. The result was that whites portrayed, to themselves and others, the way that blacks lived, worked, and were educated (to the extent that going far up the education ladder was realistic) as appropriate to their temperament. That temperament was, in turn, presented as childlike and unsuited to complex reasoning and tasks—a potted portrayal informed by racialism and essentialism. In other words, the system was benevolent, indeed in its victims’ best interest. Rebellion therefore amounted to what Karl Marx called false consciousness, or ingratitude; or worse (and this stereotype enabled so many whites to rationalize apartheid), blacks’ innate inclination to violence.

This digression on apartheid cannot, of course, do it justice. But without recalling the brutality and inhumanity of a system that is slowly fading from Western memories, it is impossible to understand the enormity of Mandela’s achievements, his strength of character and the caliber of his statesmanship.

Mandela had every right to be angry given what apartheid had done to him and to the majority of South Africans. But he did not indulge that emotion. Instead, upon his release from prison, he called for reconciliation and a multiracial democracy and a negotiated transition aimed at creating a new political order based on those principles. His interlocutor was Prime Minister F.W. De Klerk, who had been a stalwart supporter of apartheid and was elected president in 1989. But by then, De Klerk had come to doubt the viability of the system that he had long served. The reasons underlying his change of heart were entirely practical. Apartheid had brought South Africa international isolation. Moreover, it rested on the disenfranchisement of the nonwhite majority and the denial to them of basic rights, and was not sustainable, politically or economically.

Mandela’s genius and farsightedness lay in understanding that De Klerk, who took the courageous step of freeing him, had become (however reluctantly) a proponent of change, and that a peaceful, rather than blood-soaked, path to a new political order was finally possible. Perhaps Mandela’s greatest contribution to his country is the irreplaceable part he played—no one else had the moral stature or commanded the reverence required—in shepherding that delicate, difficult transition.

Mandela served as South Africa’s first popularly elected (and, needless to say, black) president from 1994-1999. He could easily have stayed on, but, in the mode of Cincinnatus and George Washington, he went into retirement, becoming a distinguished elder statesman. He understood, it seems, that he would have done his country little good by becoming a multi-term president—not just because of his age but also because South Africa needed a new generation of leaders. He did not want to be the giant oak tree beneath which nothing substantial can grow. That act of relinquishment required an extraordinary and all-too-rare mix of confidence and self-effacement. For most leaders the norm is hubris, the conflation of self and nation, grandiosity bred by pretensions of indispensability.

Does this giant have blemishes? Of course. In this respect Mandela is an ordinary leader and an ordinary man. The torrent of tributes and assessments that will follow his death will no doubt include criticisms, but he would not mind given his dislike of deification.

As a dissident, Mandela eventually despaired of a nonviolent solution to apartheid. In 1961, along with other members of the African National Congress (ANC), he helped establish Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or “MK”), an organization that would conduct bombing attacks against government facilities, launch guerrilla campaigns and mine rural roads. As a free man, president and ex-president, he did not hesitate to express his gratitude to those who had stood behind the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC. He did not care that among those individuals were the likes of Moammar el-Qaddafi and Fidel Castro. Other chinks will be found in Mandela’s armor. Post-apartheid South Africa has numerous problems, among them poverty, inequality, violence, corruption among those wielding economic and political power, and the disappointing quality of Mandela’s successors—Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma—as president. There have been promises undelivered and hopes unrequited. These failures will doubtless be noted. That is to be expected; indeed it is required. Hagiography is not merely cloying, it is counterproductive: it promotes deception and offers no positive lessons for the future.

But in judging Nelson Mandela, fairness demands three things: consideration of the long arc of his life and his short term in office, not a focus on isolated episodes; remembrance of the nature of the system he was fighting; and recollection of the extent to which Western governments, their outlook shaped by a Cold War paradigm, seemed to smugly suggest open-ended “engagement” and dialogue and to caution against “extremism” in the struggle against a system that itself was extremist. When placed in such perspective, the criticisms of Mandela will be akin to gnat bites on an elephant.

Mandela combined the traits of heart and mind to exercise several (very) different variants of leadership. He was a political dissident and an insurgent. He was a prisoner of conscience. True to his given Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, or troublemaker— Nelson was the English name a teacher gave him on his first day at school—he created a great deal of trouble for the apartheid regime because he symbolized its injustice and cruelty as well as the possibility of defying it. He was the conciliator and the co-architect of the passage from one order to a new one. That process could have easily failed and set off a spiral of bloodshed. He was, as president, the chief executive of a problem-laden country and initiated various much-needed reforms. He is a revered elder statesman with global cachet and stature.

Few leaders have been able to play such varied parts in the drama of politics. The traits that are necessary to do so are seldom embodied in any one individual. Nelson Mandela had the intellect, character, and style to move from one demanding role to another. For that and more he will, long after death claims him, be remembered as one of history’s most compelling figures.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances. This piece is originally appeared in The National Interest.