It's been 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, time to take stock of this giant man and of the changes he brought to South Africa.
It was one of the most remarkable moments of the 20th century. Jailed for 27 years, Mandela had been put away, and as far as the apartheid government was concerned, never to be heard from again.
But on Feb. 11, 1990, an event occurred that most people thought they would never see: Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island prison a free man.
Less than five years later, he would go from being the world's most famous political prisoner to president of his country.
Few international campaigns for justice have enjoyed the depth of sustained support and passion as the anti- apartheid movement.
In collaboration with the vigorous freedom movement inside South Africa, there was a worldwide call for an end to the evil system of racial segregation. One of the central demands was the release of Mandela and his comrades.
For a long while, it was doubtful whether the vicious and unapologetic regime would accede to that demand.
After all, it had demonstrated its willingness to murder in the massacres that it committed in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960, where 69 people were killed, and against children in the Soweto uprisings in the 1970s. Many anti-apartheid leaders had been assassinated, such as youth activist Stephen Biko and African National Congress leader Chris Hani. But opposition to the government only grew and ultimately it was forced to negotiate and disband.
Upon his release, Mandela made it clear that all remnants of apartheid had to end and full political participation by all of the people of South Africa had to take place. In 1994, in the first truly democratic election in the country, the African National Congress was victorious and Mandela became the first president of a free South Africa at the age of 76.
Unfortunately, the very real and serious economic and social issues faced by the country were overwhelming. The government found itself desperately trying to address them with little resources. The support that existed for the overthrow of apartheid did not transfer into the international assistance needed to build a nation with fairness for all.
Also, the coalition -- ranging from the South African Communist Party to members of the Catholic Church -- that had come together to challenge apartheid, fell apart as different interests surfaced.
In many ways, it was the powerful presence of Mandela that more or less kept the country from exploding.
However, due to his age and health, he left office after only one term and was succeeded by the much less charismatic and politically skilled Thabo Mbeki, who held the presidency from 1994 to 2009. Mbeki's effort at privatizing utilities and other assaults on working and poor people sent activists to the streets. Succeeding Mbeki is the even more controversial Jacob Zuma, who was elected last year.
Given the multitude of difficulties that South Africa confronts today, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the global jubilation that accompanied Mandela as he walked out of prison 20 years ago.
It was not only a personal triumph for him, his family and their supporters, in South Africa and around the world. It was also a triumph for those who struggle against tremendous odds anywhere and have faith that someday they too will know justice and freedom.
That shall always remain Nelson Mandela's powerful legacy.
Lusane is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington.