Special is an overworked description in sport.

We use it far too much in journalism and hear it every day to define occasions or incidents which in a lapse of time, revert to the ordinary.

However it is entirely appropriate when we write about the character and career of Nelson Mandela, the civil rights activist who became the first black President of South Africa as his long walk to freedom gathered more energy.

A gap of nearly two decades since my first view of Nelson Mandela's influence has not reduced my opinion or portrayal of this remarkable man who did so much to help South Africa's transformation.

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That World Cup final afternoon in 1995 when he walked into the strong sunlight and raucous atmosphere at Ellis Park, was a stunning occasion.

The symbolism was dramatic with the black leader of his nation and the white captain of the rugby side, both clad in Springbok jerseys bearing the same number six, fuelling the optimism and nerves of the 72,000 spectators at the famous park.

Mandela had replaced his usual casual shirt for the green rugby jersey which had been a sign of the oppressive regime in South Africa. Mandela wanted to break those chains while also embracing some of the traditional history of his Rainbow Nation.

This was Madiba at his galvanizing best, a man then in his late 70's whose appearance with his quiet yet deliberate speech was the nation's most powerful weapon.

The tumult which had engulfed the stadium since the gates opened, grew even louder.

Expectation had dizzied South Africa while the All Blacks were listing after illness swept through them late in the week.

When Mandela walked onto the ground before kickoff and returned for the presentation for the Webb Ellis Trophy, the torrents of joy seemed to override the relentless cacophony during the game.

No one wanted to leave. Many had been there for hours before the consuming extra-time final and wanted to stay for hours afterwards.

They danced and sang into the night, proclaiming their rugby heroes and the special powers of Nelson Mandela. In many areas of life in South Africa, the great man delivered that sort of direction. He was a noble leader with great hopes for his country and populace.

Now it's time for them to repay his service.

As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, nzherald.co.nz remembers the life of the anti-apartheid campaigner and the first black President of South Africa. He was imprisoned for 27 years, controversial for much of his life, he received international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance. He was held in deep respect within South Africa, and has been described as "the father of the nation".