Next Tuesday is the tenth anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, writes columnist Andy Winter. Today he is one of the most recognisable people on the planet, even a decade after his death. Yet in the Sixties and early Seventies, Mandela had become invisible in South Africa and throughout the world.

He had been in prison since 1963 and for most of that time his image was banned in South Africa. In fact, displaying any image of Mandela carried a prison sentence. He could not be quoted in public and for the majority of white South Africans, he was out of sight and out of mind. For the first 17 years of his incarceration he was held in a prison on Robben Island, six miles off Cape Town.

When growing up in Cape Town, I had no particular view of Mandela. I had heard his name but knew little, if anything, about him. When my friends and I cycled to Cape Town Docks, we were aware of the high security berth where the “terrorists” were taken from the mainland to Robben Island, and that Mandela was one of them. That area now forms part of the Waterfront, a mecca for tourists and rich South Africans alike.

From my bedroom window I could see Robben Island in the distance out to sea. But it wasn’t until I arrived in England that I first saw a photograph of Mandela - an old black and white photo taken many years before. Today I have on my wall a large ANC election poster from 1994, dominated by the warm, smiling face of Mandela who we had been told in the bad old days of apartheid, wanted to drive all white people into the sea. Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to quip: “How can we drive you into the sea when you don’t even allow us on to the beaches?” Under apartheid the best beaches were reserved for white people only.

In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, few would have predicted that a peaceful transition would be achieved, from apartheid to democracy, nor that a single individual, long out of public view, serving a life sentence for acts of terrorism, would be the catalyst for this monumental change. Many people tend to forget that Mandela did, indeed, lead the arms struggle, and was responsible for planting bombs. Margaret Thatcher is alleged to have described Mandela as “that grubby little terrorist”. But, as they say, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.

The world now rightly regards him one of the greatest figures of the modern era, and pays homage to him for his dignity, his courage, and his willingness to forgive. Yet it is worth remembering he had his shortcomings, and today’s corrupt ANC government is also part of his legacy.

A true monument to Mandela, himself without an ounce of corruption, is to build on the legacy of the Rainbow Nation, by routing out the corruption that is endemic throughout the new ruling class in South Africa, and which is holding back the cause of fairness and freedom.

We need the likes of Nelson Mandela today in many parts of the world, not least in Israel and Palestine, someone who can reach across historic divides, of painful, violent histories, who can be a catalyst for peace.

In spite of the above, I have always been uncomfortable at how people have co-opted the image of Mandela to demonstrate their own virtues. It was always easy for progressives in the UK to oppose the abomination of apartheid from 6,000 miles away, yet turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression closer to home.

When Mandela addressed a combined session of the British Parliament, there was not a single dissenting voice among the MPs and lords present. They basked in being in his presence. Yet many had not lifted a finger in his support when it did not suit their interests and prejudices. Today, too, many of our leaders fail to deal with the injustices in our own society, like homelessness, poverty and violence. They might say the right thing, but words (unlike under apartheid) come cheap. The Conservatives have destroyed much of the welfare state, while a likely Labour government will fail to act because they want to be seen as being fiscally responsible.

If political leaders in this country had a tiny fraction of the courage and determination of Nelson Mandela, then great things could be achieved. But among them there isn’t a single one who is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as him.

Andy Winter is a former councillor who worked in social care and homelessness services for 40 years