I first shook Nelson Mandela's hand in December 1996. Like a kid around a rock star, I vowed I would never wash my hand again.

It was just after the promulgation of South Africa's first ever democratic constitution and then-President Mandela was hosting a function for diplomats to thank them for the support their countries had provided during the anti-apartheid struggle. I remember watching Mandela walk along the line of diplomats, intensely interested in them all even though none of them appeared to have anything original to say other than to congratulate him on the historic event. I was no different. I said exactly what the Greek Ambassador standing next to me had said: 'Congratulations Mr President, you must feel very proud'. It was nearly 30 years ago and I recall it like it was yesterday.

Despite my lack of originality, Mr Mandela made me feel as if I was the only person in that room. As if I had said the only interesting thing he had heard all day. He was warm and genuine and he made me feel worthy.

Many South Africans see Mr Mandela in the same way: as the father of their rainbow nation, as the man who taught them how to live next door to someone they had been taught to hate, as the embodiment of a vibrant society where colour and social status do not limit opportunity. Mr Mandela showed South Africans about forgiveness and tolerance. He was seen by all as a role model of decency and integrity, someone they could aspire to be and someone against whom all subsequent leaders would be measured.

South Africans of all races embraced his early calls for unity. His courageous decision to don the number six Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup sent a message to the nation about the need to work together across colour and cultural divides, and South Africans responded. They respected his decisions, they embraced his values and they loved him for putting South Africa's interests first.

In the years after his presidency there were some who believed Mr Mandela had been manipulated and out-manoeuvred by his successor Thabo Mbeki. The current deputy president of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, was always Mr Mandela's choice as his replacement.

History will be the final judge but for many South Africans it is an irrelevance. They loved Madiba for removing the stain from their country's reputation and for promoting the idea of South African exceptionalism both domestically and internationally. South African diplomats proudly advocate their country's historical transition from pariah state to modern democracy, including the introduction of mechanisms such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a model for other post-conflict environments. They regard the South African example of the negotiated settlement as achieved by Mr Mandela as an international blueprint.

There are many South Africans today who lament the diminution of Mr Mandela's vision of reconciliation. They worry that, unlike Mr Mandela, the current leadership seems unable to acknowledge South Africa's problems and articulate them honestly. Nor does it appear able, through consultation and compromise, to find the best solution for the greatest number. And there are many who fear that with his passing South Africa will no longer be regarded as 'special'.

In the Australian High Commissioner's residence in Pretoria there is a plaque commemorating the awarding to Mr Mandela in 1999 of Australia's highest honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia. It is Australia's fitting tribute to a man who not only reshaped his country's destiny but who showed us all, wherever we live, what it means to be good.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.