During extended visits to South Africa in each of the past four years, every person I met — no matter race or ethnicity — spoke reverentially of Nelson Mandela as the father of a new, better South Africa.
Thandwefika Radebe, a student at the University of Cape Town, described Mandela as a "servant leader" who put his country and people ahead of everything.
"Mandela taught me that you didn't have to be black or previously oppressed. You were South African by virtue of family roots that preceded apartheid and wanting the country to succeed," said Radebe, 20.
Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela was eloquent in calling for unity of white and black South Africans and forgiveness for the regime that segregated the two in the racist system known as apartheid.
But it was his actions more than his words that convinced South Africans that the man they call Madiba (a nickname from his Xhosa tribe) believed in what he said.
Few here forget the gesture Mandela made after becoming the country's first black president when he donned the jersey of the captain of the mostly white Springbok rugby team at the 1995 world championship to congratulate them.
That same year Mandela sat for tea at the home of the 94-year-old widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of the oppressive racial policies that Mandela devoted his life to eradicating.
When he was inaugurated as president in 1994, four years after his release from prison for trying to topple the government, Mandela said, "It is here, at the Cape of Good Hope that we should lay the foundation stone of our new nation.
"For it was here at this Cape, over three centuries ago, that there began the fateful convergence of the peoples of Africa, Europe and Asia on these shores," he said, alluding to the arrival in the 17th century of explorers and settlers from other continents.
Among them were the Dutch colonizers known as Afrikaners who relegated the black inhabitants to second-class status and separate townships.
What magnanimity those words held from a man who for more than 20 years could do no more than gaze at the grandeur of Table Mountain from a prison cell on Robben Island. When he was freed, Mandela spoke in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch settlers, and wished his captors well.
He described fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner and the last apartheid ruler, F.W. DeKlerk, as "one of the greatest sons of our soil." It was DeKlerk who with Mandela oversaw the end of the racist system of government in South Africa that his forebears established.
Mining executive Clem Sunter, who has written about the negotiations that led to the democratic elections that ended white minority rule, recalled spending the morning with Mandela just before his release from prison.
"My big takeaway from that was that he's an inclusive leader who wanted everybody in South Africa to play on the same side in order to compete on the global stage," he said.
"His main concern was to get up to speed on the way the economic game had changed during his (nearly three decades of) incarceration."
When he won the presidency in 1994, Mandela's emphasized reconciliation and nation building in his inaugural address.
"We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success," he said. "We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world."
Mandela became president at age 77. He served his single five-year term and then retired from public life to leave the country's affairs to younger leaders. That too was another important action from Mandela, an example for leaders of other African nations who hold onto power for life.
Viewed by many as a messiah, Mandela has observed repeatedly that he is far from perfect. His family life, for one, has been turbulent. But his legacy is likely to be seen as great as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, a fellow lawyer who gained prominence defying racist rules while working in South Africa.
Radebe worries that for those who believe that South Africa has descended into corruption with self-serving politicians, "the death of Mandela will be devastating."
It could, he says, "be the death of the ideals of servant leadership and possibly to some the death of hope that the current status quo in government will change."
Let's hope that is not the case.
For me, having been a reporter in Johannesburg in the 1970s, I see a South Africa flourishing as the rainbow democracy Mandela so fervently sought to build. He has given much: a constitution that enshrines private property rights, an independent judiciary and a free media. Despite crime and weak political leadership, the foundation beneath South Africa is intact and there has been no substantial departure of people or capital out of the country.
At his 1964 Rivonia trial for treason Mandela declared, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." While the dream is not fully realized, immeasurable progress has been made.