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He suffered greatly, beyond comprehension at times, but was still able to win the admiration of his adversaries

Remarkably, Nelson Mandela managed to convince both the apartheid authorities and his own party leadership that there was a route through the barriers of hate and history towards freedom.

By the early 1980s, he had so won over his prison guards he was free to roam the island. By 1988 he had moved into a vacant prison warder's house on the mainland. And on February 2, 1990, after more than 10,000 days in jail, he walked free. When I visited him a few years later, in the remote town of Qunu on the east coast of South Africa, he had painstakingly rebuilt an exact replica of that prison warder's house and made it his home. He loved the house. It represented his first taste of freedom for 25 years. On the inside, the house thronged with the noises of his family, of his grandchildren, as they prepared excitedly for Christmas lunch.

It was Mandela's first ­Christmas as the newly elected president of South Africa and I felt very fortunate to have been invited. At the time I was the senior writer of a new newspaper, the Sunday Independent. As a political correspondent who covered his ascent from prisoner to president, I had enjoyed a front row seat of Mandela's difficult but fascinating journey to power.

On that Christmas morning of 1994, he and I (and a handful of his security guards) wandered the pathways of his youth. He showed me the rock he had played on as a child, the cluster of huts where he had slept. We met simple country people, many on their way to feast on the slaughtered cow now turning over a fire in his garden. They raised their arms and called "Madiba", his clan name, for Mandela was a Xhosa prince as well as a democrat. When he went to court expecting the death sentence in 1964, he went in his tribal robes and prince's crown.

There are so many moments to recall in my time with Mandela. I was a few feet away when he swore the presidential oath of office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the airforce fighter jets roared over our heads. I was also in court when he filed for divorce. He was as grim and sombre as one could be.

I recall how he joked that, when he moved into his vacant office in the Presidency, there wasn't a single chair, pencil or phone left behind by his predecessor and fellow Nobel peace prize laureate, Mr FW De Klerk.

There were challenges to the press corps when covering such a man. He was adored and celebrated. He could do no wrong. This was not a journalism we were used to. Where was the scandal? The complacency of power? Where were the mistakes? He would call on the phone to chat and laugh about the stuffy ambassador he'd just met or give some background on the press conference that would be called in the morning. He was totally disarming, as almost all who came to his world, friend and foe, soon realised.

He would have been the first to admit he wasn't perfect. I learned this the hard way. One day he took off his reading glasses during a speech and announced that everyone over the age of 13 would get to vote in the next election. Sensation! We rushed to file our stories. The next morning, front page leads were laden with banner headlines and gaudy editorials.

Alas, this was just a spur-of-the-moment idea, a "Mandela-ism" as they became known to us in the corps. It had not even been discussed by the ANC, who soon smilingly discarded the crazy notion into the dustbin of history. We learned our lesson. When he took off his glasses and moved off the prepared script, we put down our pens and notebooks. He was also prone to the odd temper and on one occasion - the aftermath of the infamous Boipatong massacre - literally shouted at and abused his counterpart, Mr De Klerk, in public.

The challenges he faced in rebuilding South Africa after 300 years of colonialism and apartheid were also truly overwhelming. He presided over more than 500 Acts of Parliament in his first and only presidential term, many fundamentally rebuilding the country's governmental and social structure.

It will take many more years before the normalcy he dreamed off is achieved or the equality and development he yearned for will be realised.

Perhaps what Mandela is best known for, his greatest gift, was his capacity to forgive. He suffered greatly, beyond comprehension at times, but was able to win the admiration, trust and co-operation of his fiercest adversaries. He was a man of great principle, never compromising on his need to sound out opinion and decide things collectively.

Mandela learned true democracy at the fireside in an African village as he listened to the elders, including his father, debate and argue the issues of the day: All were listened to, all respected. If some opposed the way forward, the discussion was put off to another day. Only decisions that gained the support of all were adopted.

His roots and his beliefs are a reminder that democratic values form part and parcel of the ancient fabric of human life, going back to the earliest of times. Over the centuries, many have sacrificed their lives for such values and many more have blossomed in their light.

Scotland is part of this journey. Here, too, we ponder the true meaning and future of democracy. Here too we see a fork in the road ahead and wonder which way is the right one.

Mandela has gone, but his legacy will endure. He was truly a great man, and it is to Glasgow's credit that it was the first city to say so.

Dr Hadland is director of the ­journalism programme at the University of Stirling. He was a journalist in South Africa for 15 years, covering the country's transition from apartheid to democracy. He has published several books about Mandela.

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