People gather during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium.

People gather during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium. Photo: Christopher Furlong

The Nelson Mandela being eulogised over the past few days has been made almost a secular saint - a heroic figure of resistance, dignity and courage but also reconciliation and forgiveness. The sense that a great man - perhaps the greatest of the past 40 years - has left the stage, and that we might not see his like again, affects not only South Africans, Africans and others from third world countries but also people who represented many of the things he stood against.

It may well be that we have reinvented him, if only because heroes of his charisma and moral force are hard to find, not least in a world, such as South Africa, struggling hard to bring some measure of economic, social and cultural freedom for all classes of its citizens. Or in a nation such as Australia, which has never had such a political hero.

South Africa has problems enough with a long hangover of bitterness, anger, retribution and grievance founded upon white colonialism, but particularly on its development into the apartheid regime after D.F. Malan became South African prime minister in 1948.

That Mandela, imprisoned by the successors of that regime as a communist, a terrorist and as the embodiment of the threat posed by black citizenship, could, on release, look forward, show firmness but a great lack of rancour, and deftly manage, if not invent, a truth and reconciliation process that took much of the sting from lingering spirits of revenge was the work of a great leader.

It is obvious from the grief even of people who were better off under the regime his advent replaced, and by the sometimes grudging respect even of people who for most of their political lives deplored apartheid in principle but never stinted in giving moral support to its guardians. Or who tenderly argued that one should not do anything to put pressure on the apartheid regime, lest damage be accidentally done to innocent black South Africans.

But many who now acknowledge Mandela's greatness would like to forget that it flowed from history, principle and long experience of the unwillingness of the West, and South Africa, to support the rights of its people. Mandela represents war as well as peace.

The greatness of Mandela comes mostly from his career after he was released from prison, by his participation in the transition to real democracy, by his strength of character and presidential qualities while he was head of state and, even after he was retired, by his being a visible symbol of vision, hope and reconciliation. Yet all were rooted in his having been a real enemy of the apartheid regime - a person who was everything his detractors claimed.

Yitzhak Rabin once remarked that ''you make peace only with your enemies'' - and Mandela, and what he represented, was a formidable enemy of the old South African state.

The old South Africa did not break down merely because black South Africans, or the African National Congress, took up arms against the white regime. There were continual acts of disobedience, and sometimes sharp engagements, but there was never a possibility that civilians could have overcome a paranoid and militarised regime.

Nor was it defeated by civil disobedience, or by civil uprisings and disturbances in black communities in places such as Soweto, even if the increasing cost of disorder and strife in African communities and the increasing understanding of the regime's authorities that their capacity to maintain order by sheer force was declining, helped make some of the regime become more pragmatic about the future.

Nor was it, by itself, defeated by sanctions, by moral, diplomatic or economic isolation, or by its character as an international pariah. There were few outside South Africa, other than a few exiles who received letter bombs from the Bureau of State Security, who ever suffered greatly in the cause of South African freedom, dearly as they may have wanted it or wanted, at the least, to make a moral statement about it.

For those in the regime who wanted to fight on, surrender represented surrender to communism. Mandela was a communist, committed to destroying their nation by violence. The ANC received aid and comfort from the Soviet Union. That similar nationalist movements also had communist connections was further proof that the argument was not about political freedom but about protecting Christian and European civilisation against all of the odds.

A good many Cold Warriors echoed this view - in Britain, the United States and in Australia. That there were some secret Cold War links meant that there was a realpolitik with which sympathy to people regarded as being essentially similar to everyday (white) English, Australians, New Zealanders or Americans could be disguised - after a ritual sentence deploring the racism, of course. That for a good many of the countries concerned, including Australia, racism had long been a part of the colonial culture and enfranchisement was something only to be granted when the subjects were ready, meant that not much time was wasted on ritual.

Yet the real story about Mandela is that during his years before going to jail, he moderated more than did his enemies. An optimist came to think his idealism naive, and to despair of progress. He had started by thinking that democracy and enfranchisement could be achieved by patience, struggle, education and engagement. But white South Africa was not like Britain and had no intention of a steady progress towards democracy or civil rights for Africans or other non-white citizens.

He had started by believing in united campaigns, political and industrial, involving whites, coloured and blacks, trying to form alliances of Christians, liberals and more radical groups. He himself was not at this stage radical.

He came to despair of what moderation, negotiation, reason and restraint could be achieved - and because the regime was not moderate, reasonable or restrained. Increasingly he thought that only Africans could achieve freedom and, then, only by fighting for it.

Mandela's ultimate embrace of the ANC - which was multiracial - represented a mellowing of his ideas, not a radicalisation of them. But it was hardly a surprise that an increasingly belligerent and repressive regime was generating the very forces that would bring it down. Mandela was never so powerful than as a figure of resistance at Robben Island. In the end, it was his most bitter internal enemies who realised how the contradictions of their system were becoming unsustainable. It was to be rather later that the world was to learn, or at least be told, that the statesmen of the Cold War, and the leaders of the international cricket, rugby and netball establishments, had been secretly on his side all along.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large.

jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia .com.au