South Africa looks to legacy of Nelson Mandela, its great reconciler and first black president

South Africa's agonizing past swept over Alex McLaren, who stepped into sunlight with tears in his eyes after a tour of the Apartheid Museum, an unsparing study of white minority rule and the costly fight against it.

Yet South Africa-born McLaren, an American citizen, also found inspiration within the bleak brick, concrete and steel of the museum, which includes an exhibition about Nelson Mandela, former prisoner, South Africa's first black head of state and one of the great, unifying figures of the 20th century.

Mandela, now 94 years old and ailing, was a special figure in the anti-apartheid struggle because of "his perseverance, his ability to forgive and to reconcile, and the fact that he appeared when he did, him and others. But mainly him," said McLaren, a retired engineer.

"There will be a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth, when he goes," he said, anticipating the grief of South Africa and the world.

The delicate health of Mandela, now convalescing behind the high walls of his Johannesburg home, came under scrutiny and speculation during a 19-day stay in a hospital in December. He was treated for a lung infection and had gallstones removed. Regardless of when the end comes, his burnished legacy was written years ago, even if the country he led from the long night of apartheid still struggles with poverty and other social ills.

Mandela's place as South Africa's premier hero is so secure that the central bank released new banknotes in 2012 showing his face, a robust, smiling image of the icon who walked out of a prison's gates on Feb. 11, 1990 after 27 years in captivity. He is a Nobel laureate, the recipient of many other international awards, the subject of books, films and songs and, when he was active, a magnet for celebrities.

In part, what elevated Mandela was his charisma, his ability to charm through humor and grace, and an extraordinary capacity to find strength in adversity.

"People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety," Mandela says in one of the many quotations on display at the Apartheid Museum. "You learn to look into yourself."

Early in his career, he wore the same suit for years because he was poor, but eventually became a sharp dresser as a lawyer and activist. In the early 1960s, the media called him the "Black Pimpernel" while he was on the run, a reference to the "Scarlet Pimpernel," a novel about a dashing English hero and master of disguises who eluded a manhunt around the time of the French Revolution.

As a post-apartheid statesman, loose, colorful shirts became his trademark garb. The style was introduced to him by Suharto, the Indonesian authoritarian leader who was toppled by protests and economic turmoil in 1998.

Amid this global acclaim and imagery, Mandela gave South Africans, in the simplest terms, the chance to feel better about themselves after grinding years of conflict, humiliation and international isolation. Crucially, he beckoned compatriots of all races and political shades, dampening the sting of defeat for South Africa's former white masters.

"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world," Mandela said at his presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994.

Mandela, however, could not satisfy all factions in a nation where the economic spoils were stacked in favor of the white minority and the black majority lacked skills and education. The ruling African National Congress, steeped in the culture of struggle, had to run a government, deliver services and tackle corruption within its own ranks. Its record, then and now, is decidedly mixed.

Perceived successes include, on Mandela's watch, the introduction of one of the world's most progressive constitutions and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that heard testimony about apartheid-era violations of human rights as a kind of national therapy session. He retired after only one term as president, raising questions about whether he was too trusting in aides and had taken too light a touch on some urgent issues such as the looming AIDS crisis.

Today, the government says it is still in a process of "nation-building" that entails lifting up South Africans, many of them black, who lack jobs and other opportunities long after apartheid.

"We have to hasten our drive towards attaining socio-economic freedom," President Jacob Zuma said in his New Year's message. He cited an increase in income and education levels, but noted "deep income disparities" in recent census data that showed the income of a white household is six times that of a black household.

Peter Attard Montalto, an analyst for financial services company Nomura, said the South African economy is struggling and warned of a risk of labor unrest in 2013. South Africa has recently seen credit downgrades, and several dozen people were killed, mostly by police, at a platinum mine that was swept up in industry protests.

"South Africa appears to be in a 'grinding underperformance' scenario which has risks to social stability from a lack of development, not the 'blow-up/Zimbabwe' scenario of the doom-mongers," Montalto wrote in a report.

McLaren, the visitor to the Apartheid Museum, grew up in South Africa and recalled witnessing injustices of apartheid: blacks being arrested or stopped in the street, a black woman being pushed off a bus and a view among many whites that blacks were "somehow inferior."

Now a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, 66-year-old McLaren said: "South Africa is such a mixed place now. Some of it is falling apart, some of it is really good, some of it is really bad. But you know, it's much better than it was, much better than it was."

An imperfect country, but one that Mandela, whose clan name, Madiba, means "reconciler," guided elegantly through a painful transition.

In "Mandela: The Authorized Portrait," a collection of accounts about Mandela, lawyer and human rights advocate George Bizos described how Mandela joked about his age (he was 86 at the time) and said he would join "the nearest branch of the ANC in heaven."

Bizos related in the book how he once told Mandela about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death and said he hoped to meet Homer, Sophocles and other giants for eternal discussions in the afterlife.

According to Bizos, Mandela replied:

"But assume that there is no such thing. Have you ever had a night's sleep when you were not disturbed at all — no dreams, no fears — you just slept throughout the night? Didn't you feel very much happier? Can you imagine if there is this eternal sleep it's also all right? So what's there to be afraid of?"