Nelson Mandela turned 90 years of age on Friday.

That he has lived this long is itself remarkable in that nearly one-third of his existence on this planet was spent incarcerated and most of that time under brutal conditions.

But that he turned 90 with one of the world's most recognizable faces and as perhaps its most admired citizen is an astonishing testament to the power of moral courage and forgiveness.

In 1994, Mandela became South Africa's first black president and, most important, its first democratically elected president. Yet even those historic garments seem too small for his shoulders. Although he was a politician, and a good one, he's seen as something larger, a secular saint whose value and legacy transcend legislation.

This isn't what the South African government had in mind in 1964 when Mandela, already serving time for incitement, was convicted of treason — a charge that England could have made against George Washington and that any totalitarian government can level against those attempting to overthrow it in favor of democracy. Mandela's foe was apartheid, an instrument of hate that made South Africa the most systematically racist country in history.

Mandela was given a life sentence, a sentence meant to remove him from view and memory, a sentence meant for him to die a prisoner. Had Mandela died in prison, entombed in legend, he would have been a tantalizing "what if?" to history while South Africa consumed itself in its rage.

But over the years, something incredible happened as the myth of Mandela grew and he became the most famous political prisoner in the world.

By the 1980s, a face that had last been seen in a courtroom in 1964 emblazoned T-shirts and posters around the world and the words "Free Nelson Mandela" had become a mantra. In 1988 in London, a concert for his 70th birthday was watched on television by close to a billion people in more than 60 countries.

By then, there was a growing recognition throughout the South African government that the future of the nation was in the hands of the aging prisoner who'd earned the admiration of not only his fellow black prisoners but his white jailers as well. They understood that the salvation of South Africa depended upon the release of the man they'd accused of seeking to destroy it.

So on a glorious Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990, as the world watched, Mandela exited the Victor Verster Prison and walked out of the mists of mythology onto the stage of history, carrying on his 71-year-old shoulders the responsibility of saving a tortured nation.

Had he been a selfish man consumed with greed, or a hate-filled man motivated by revenge, the mythology around him would have crumbled and South Africa would have been like Rwanda and the former states of Yugoslavia, countries torn apart, their land soaked in blood by ethnic civil wars.

Mandela emerged from prison unbowed, a warrior still in possession of his dignity and grace, rather than the fire-breathing demagogue he'd been caricatured as. He proved himself to be a pragmatic statesman devoted to building a multiracial democracy.

In the tradition of nonviolence, Mandela understood there was no place for humiliation or revenge. "Even as a child," he wrote in his autobiography, "I defeated my opponents without dishonoring him."

So he included his persecutors in his government, invited his jailer to his inauguration, created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed South Africans to talk about their country's painful past without retribution and he even had tea with the widow of the man known as the architect of apartheid.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote, "Mandela has certainly got the greatest moral stature of any political leader of our time ... Mandela will remain a great icon. The fact that a black man is the most respected figure in the world is also part of what he has brought about."

In a short address in Soweto in June, Mandela said, "And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the center of the values by which you live. There is still too much discord, hatred, division, conflict and violence in our world here at the beginning of the 21st century. A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of."

Happy birthday, Mr. Mandela.