In many ways, the South Africa leader's life makes sense as a natural progression, but in other ways his behavior is such a surprise. And that's the part that's so inspiring.
Mandela's quest for the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule took him from the "court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa’s richest country," as The New York Times puts it.
Mandela's upbringing is cited as giving him great self-confidence and sense of authority.
“The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” says Ahmed Kathrada, an activist who shared a prison cellblock with Mandela and was part of his inner circle. “That always gave him a strength.”
And as part of a tribal royal family, he learned how to wield power.
In his autobiography, Mandela described listening to the consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd.”
“He stays behind the flock,” he said, “letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
That frequently would be his own style as leader and president, says the Times.
So, Mandela was a man born to lead and learned as a child how to do it.
But the big question is how, after whites had humiliated his people, tortured and killed many of his friends, and imprisoned him for 27 years, he could be so free of vengefulness.
Mandela clearly saw that resentment was counterproductive. But as a human being, how could he avoid it?
Probably the best answer I've found in hours of reading Mandela obituaries and commentary online comes from South Africa's Mail & Guardian:
"Certainly, he went into jail a militant hot-head (in the 1940s, if you needed a meeting broken up you called Mandela) and came out a profound statesman. Even if prison damaged him irrevocably in some senses — how could it not? — he did succeed in using it as both a political laboratory and a place of profound introspection."
"He came upon his almost inhuman lack of bitterness and desire for reconciliation in the prison laboratory because he saw that this approach lifted the scrim of prejudice from his savage captors' eyes and transformed them into human beings. Once they were human, they could reason, and once they could reason, they would — as he had — understand that South Africans' futures were interlocked, and that they were dependent on each other."
So Mandela used his lack of resentment to literally and figuratively disarm others and enable him to work with them based on their common humanity.
Here are reactions from world leaders and others to the death of Mandela on Thursday at age 95.
And here are reflections from commentators on his global legacy.