One aspect of the South African experience of struggling for freedom, and of building a post-apartheid order, not widely known is that there were many other significant heroes and heroines who took that long walk to freedom, with and before Nelson Mandela. Oliver Tambo, who was perhaps the most important of them all, proved to be a guide for many. Walter Sisulu, whose family still participates in governance, was another. Govan Mbeki, the father of the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, is a less visible character but a great mentor nevertheless.

There were others, too . Ahmed Kathrada, who shared a prison cell at Robben Island with Mandela, and was almost a brother to him; Durban-based Ismail Meer and his wife Fatima; Mac Maharaj, who secreted Mandela's manuscript out of Robben Island; Helen Suzman, a white woman who played a critical role in conveying messages from the prison, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, anchor of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose sermons provided courage even as they brought peace during a difficult period of struggle.

So it can be argued that Nelson Mandela was one of many but was accepted across the spectrum of leaders as the person most suited to be the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. Many of the men and women who helped in that transition to democracy were still around when my late husband, Lakshmi Jain, was appointed as the Indian high commissioner to South Africa in 1997, in the second half of Mandela's presidency.

We had the joy and privilege of striking friendships, not only with Nelson Mandela but almost all of the veterans. The conversations we had with them revealed not only the extraordinary viciousness of the earlier regime, but also the amazing stamina, brilliance and variety of the freedom fighters themselves. Their accounts of torture and resistance only added to our respect for the people of this beautiful nation.

Our first exposure to the South African political process and its leaders was at the 50th national conference of the African National Congress (ANC), held at Mafikeng Stadium on December 20, 1997. Thabo Mbeki was elected on that occasion as the next presidential candidate of the ANC, even as Mandela demitted office. In a historic speech made on that occasion, Mandela described the situation in South Africa as well as outlined what the ANC should really aspire to achieve in the immediate future. Every sentence he uttered was greeted with a hugely enthusiastic response from the stadium, which was bustling with ANC cadres from all over South Africa, each province with its own colour reflected in the garments people wore. The word 'Amandla!' (power) constantly rent the air and each time it was pronounced, the crowd responded with a hearty "Awethu!" (to us).

Mandela, like Gandhiji, was an extremely informal man, totally at ease with ‘common folk’. They both shared an ability to love the people and transmit that love to them.

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Nelson Mandela, as we know, had a stentorian voice and spoke more like an army commander than a politician. When he finished and officially handed over charge to Mbeki, there was a tense, unforgettable moment. Mbeki . who was different in every way from Mandela, short of stature, severe looking and with a clipped accent . came to the mike and alarmed the participants by saying, "You can be sure I will not step into the shoes of Madiba." Madiba, or teacher, was the name popularly used for Mandela. At this, an ominous silence descended on the audience. After a minute's pause during which the suspense only grew, Mbeki added, "Have you seen his shoes? They are the ugliest, dirtiest old shoes that I have ever seen!"

Laughter and a big round of applause greeted his words, with Mandela himself wearing a very big smile. In fact, that big smile was typical of the man and was commented upon internationally. It exuded warmth and empathy and brought a twinkle to his eyes. Every leader claims to love his or her people. But to translate this connect into reality needs an extraordinary warmth . what is called the desire to include . and Mandela had that quality in abundant measure. His unique attribute, one that makes him stand tall amongst the world's leaders, is the genuineness of his love for his people. They in turn respond in equal measure, as we saw in the messages that poured in during the weeks during which he lay critically ill at a Pretoria hospital.

Having seen him at the African National Congress convention from a distance, our next encounter with him was when my husband presented his credentials as high commissioner. Mandela welcomed us warmly but could not resist observing, right to our face, how much he missed Gopal Gandhi, the earlier Indian high commissioner to South Africa. We took this remark in our stride because we could well understand what it meant to him to have somebody representing India in South Africa who was not only as gentle and thoughtful as Gopal Gandhi, but also who happened to be Mahatma Gandhi's grandson.

But after the formal ceremony, during which my husband delivered a speech entitled Africa" The Continent Of Hope, Mandela smiled and said to me, "You are Graca's only friend in South Africa!" Indeed Graca Machel . whom Mandela later married . and I had worked together in an Eminent Persons Group at the United Nations that dealt with children in armed conflict. When the couple got married, we were invited to their wedding and into an inner room where the special guests and family were present. Later, when the time came for us to leave South Africa, we were invited to have tea with Mandela and Graca in their home.

Nelson Mandela with Devaki and Lakshmi Jain (Courtesy: Devaki Jain).

Mandela is often compared with Gandhiji, as an 'apostle of peace'. As leaders of freedom struggles, there are indeed some striking similarities between them. While Mandela is remembered for surviving his 18 years in punishing conditions on Robben Island, what is important to note is that those years proved to be the incubator for thought and action that translated eventually into one of the greatest freedom struggles the world has ever known. Gandhiji, too, had incubated his ideas with fasts and then come out with strategies like collecting a fistful of salt on the beaches of Gujarat, an act that electrified the nation.

Mandela, like Gandhiji, was an extremely informal man, totally at ease with 'common folk'. They both shared an ability to love the people and transmit that love to them. Both men had clarity of mind and the ability to arrive at answers to very complex challenges by using their reason, even as they carried their constituents along. Intuition complemented by intellectual strength marks the work of both men, who excelled in evolving innovative ideas and road maps.

Also, the stamina needed to withstand assault and pain was also evident. Gandhi put up with a great deal of personal pain . conflict with his son, the loss of close friends, extraordinary differences with colleagues in the movement . but his grit to march on for a larger political agenda remained undiminished. Similarly, Mandela had to reckon with the pain of conflict with Winnie Mandela, who was a real comrade. Such tension may have crushed a lesser person, but Mandela continued to stride across South Africa with his mission to rebuild the country after decades of repression.

India and South Africa are certainly destiny's favoured countries for having given birth to two of the most outstanding figures in modern history.