Mandela's honesty and genuine concern for the poor stood in stunning contrast to so many African rulers, whose corruption and ineptitude have kept much of the continent impoverished despite its natural resources.
This contrast is vividly apparent to South Africans, even in their own country. In retirement, Mandela lived modestly, unlike current President Jacob Zuma, who has channeled tens of millions of dollars of state money into enhancements for his lavish homestead in the dirt-poor region of Nkandla, where malnourishment and AIDs are rampant.
No wonder poor South African blacks called Mandela "tata," ("father" in the Xhosa dialect). They knew he cared.
In May 2000, I interviewed the then-81-year-old (and recently retired) Mandela in Johannesburg. He talked movingly of why revenge-seeking was useless. "People who have spent 30 years in exile . . . or in prison have no time for revenge," he said. "They know they pass through life only once and want to use that time to solve the problems of the country." Sitting in a round sunroom with an imitation thatched roof, and wearing a trademark black-and-white shirt - along with a hearing aid - he spoke in a firm voice.
He detailed the consequences of decades of apartheid: malnourished black children, living far from schools in huts lacking electricity, with parents too poor to buy books and uniforms, and schools lacking all amenities. "We have told the people that all this cannot be fixed in five or six years [of black rule], but we have started," he said. "People are not impatient, because they believe in their government."
Perhaps that was true then, when Mandela's glow still enhanced his African National Congress party and enveloped his immediate successor as president, Thabo Mbeki.
Thirteen years on, however, despite some progress, South Africa has largely failed to remedy those ills. Anger at the government corruption and staggering economic inequality is growing, not just at the black-white income gap, but at the gap between most blacks and a new, super-rich black elite.
Many concerned South Africans worry that the public's patience with the pace of change will evaporate after his death - and lead to the kind of violence he abhorred.
Had Mandela been younger when he emerged from 27 years in prison, had he opted to serve more than one five-year term, perhaps he could have instilled his ethos into the minds of his successors from the ANC party. (Of course, choosing to serve only one term on a continent where many leaders have preferred to be president-for-life was also a message in itself.)
Mandela did try to act as a role model during his retirement, traveling the country with wealthy businessmen (mostly white), whom he pressed to donate money to improve rural living conditions, especially for children. He also wanted to lead a campaign to educate youths about safe sex in order to combat rampant HIV/AIDS in his country. He was willing to break the cultural taboos against discussing sexual behavior in public, and started giving lectures to students.
Regrettably, his political party demanded that he stop this campaign - and he acceded. Perhaps he did so because he refused to think of himself as a paramount leader. (I saw an example of this, when I asked whether he believed that the reconciliation between South African blacks and whites would be his greatest legacy. He quickly corrected me: "That's a mistake to say it is the achievement of one man. We are a collective team.") In this case, his modesty, or his loyalty to his ANC comrades, undercut his ideals.
Yet Mandela's repeated refusal to play the typical African "big man" should be counted as one of his most important legacies. Just as he showed that reconciliation can provide an alternative to sectarian slaughter, he offered a different concept of governance to a continent plagued by opportunistic rulers. Although, his tenure was too short to achieve many of his objectives, he provided a moral example.
He offered a stunning contrast to the many African leaders who follow the all-too-typical practice of diverting profits from the sale of commodities and natural resources to friends and family, while failing to build desperately needed infrastructure, clinics, and schools.
Above all, he tried to listen to the concerns of ordinary South Africans, which is another reason they loved him.
"Any good leader doesn't fear criticism from his own people," Mandela told me. "You encourage that." Were his successors - and many of his fellow leaders across Africa - to adopt this mentality, the outlook for the continent might be far more hopeful than it is now.