As Nelson Mandela was being groomed in 1993 to take power as South Africa's first black president, he toured the Bryntirion, Pretoria, presidential home with his 3-year-old grandson, paying little attention to its grandeur.
"Here was a historical figure going into what had previously been the residence of the ceremonial heads of state of the apartheid government with a 3-year-old child, not being impressed with all of this," said Dave Steward, former chief of staff for President F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela that year.
"The real man was holding the hand of his grandson."
Today, on the 20th anniversary of the freedom fighter's release from Victor Verster prison after nearly three decades of imprisonment, Mandela's essential humanity is what inspires the world.
Those who know Mandela, whose clan nickname is "Madiba," say that the endearing image of him with a beloved grandchild is as powerful as his lofty goals for a multiracial South Africa and world peace.
The 91-year-old Mandela appeared at the opening of South Africa's parliament at the National Assembly in Cape Town. He walked very slowly down a few steps to his place of honor. The gallery erupted in applause and song, chanting Mandela. He sat down smiling, looking healthy for his years.
Thousands of South Africans and political leaders marked the anniversary by paying tribute to the iconic figure's first moments of freedom. Ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was expected to take the same "long walk to freedom" from the Cape Town prison where her husband had been held in his last months of captivity, but did not show up today, because she said it was "too painful."
On this day 20 years ago, she walked hand in hand with Mandela as he took his first steps as a free man in 27 years. This time prominent members of the ANC, the African National Congress Party and some of Mandela's former prison mates and apartheid activists took the journey, greeting journalists and the enthusiastic crowd along the way.
"It was an emotional moment. When we were released, that was exhilaration, happiness but at the same time sadness that we are released, we came to prison together, and we are leaving him behind," said Ahmed Kathrada, an 80-year-old anti-apartheid activist.
Kathrada, who was released four months before Mandela, said, "We knew that once we were released that the day is not too far when he is going to join us."
Current President Jacob Zuma and other leaders are expected to honor the legacy of "Madiba," which is the clan name of Nelson Mandela in a rally at a nearby rugby field today.
The event marks the official opening of this year's parliament, where the theme will be "Celebrate the Legacy of Mandela -- Contribute to Nation Building."
Even amid failing health and swirling rumors that he is on the brink of death, Mandela still assumes a large- than-life presence, one that often makes it hard to see the real man behind the myth.
"I suspect that from the day that he committed to the struggle against apartheid, he meant genuinely to fully dedicate his entire life to that cause," said Bantu Holomisa, a member of the South African Parliament.
"Little did he know the price he would pay," he told ABCNews.com. "A free South Africa became synonymous with his name, and that was what the public expected of him."
But Mandela has as many earthly passions as political ones: In his prime, he was a notorious lady's man, a boxer and a lover of ballroom dancing. His lust for life mesmerized celebrities, as well as little people.
"What you get is what you see," said Steward, now executive director of the de Klerk Foundation. "He's not putting on an act.
"If he was just walking down the street or on the way to go into the Union Building, he would speak to the gardener and express genuine interest in his life," he said. "This would cut across all racial divides. He had just as much concern for the flight crew of the presidential aircraft as he would for anybody else.
"It was not an affected charm. He is incredibly thoughtful and considerate in his relationships with the humblest of people around him. He is a great reconciler."
Those closest to him said Mandela's humanity sprang from a sense of duty that was cultivated by his noble African roots, as well as a life beset with hardship, loneliness and betrayal.
As a martyr for democratic South Africa, he spent 27 years in prison, cut off from his four children.
Released from prison in 1990, Mandela emerged into a world in motion: Africa was engulfed in an AIDS crisis -- his son Makgatho and two other family members later died of complications from the disease -- and his own nation was poised to embrace majority black rule.
Mandela credited imprisonment with strengthening his character and giving him focus, and reconciliation with his white captors became a theme of his life.
Just last week, Mandela held a private dinner celebration to mark the anniversary, inviting family and friends, including Christo Brand, one of his warders at the Robben Island prison, where he spent most of his years of captivity.
Born in 1918 in the Eastern Cape village of Transkei to a branch of the family known as the Left Hand House, Mandela was expected to be a traditional adviser to the chief of the 2.6 million-strong Thembu nation.
Sent to English schools where he was given the name "Nelson," Mandela had a deep admiration for the principles of the British parliamentary system.
As an activist with the ANC, Mandela led a general strike in 1950. He was later charged with treason in the longest trial in South African history.
When police shot 60 black protestors dead in the Sharpeville massacre, the ANC radicalized and Mandela formed the military wing and became its first commander in 1961.
By 1962, he was imprisoned for inciting a strike and sentenced in 1964 to life in prison.
George Bizos, his friend of more than half a century, said Mandela's "noble birth" had shaped his respect for others, even his foes.
When Bizos, who is white, first visited Mandela on Robben Island prison a month after his conviction in 1964, no fewer than eight white guards surrounded the prisoner on all sides. After enthusiastically embracing his friend, Mandela politely turned to his captors.
"This place has made me forget my manners, not introducing you to my guards of honor," Mandela told Bizos. "He introduced each one of them by their first and second name. They were really numbed by his behavior, and a white man embracing a black man."
He was "never aloof," Bizos told ABCNews.com.
But the man behind the prison-bound martyr is as complicated as he is celebrated.
"Sometimes I feel like the one who is on the sidelines who has missed life itself," he wrote in one of his letters, chronicled in the Anthony Sampson biography "Mandela."
Mandela's release at the age of 76 led to negotiations that ended decades of racist white rule and set the stage for his presidency in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.
He served one term and then retired from political life in 1999, establishing the Nelson Mandela Foundation to fight poverty, AIDS and illiteracy in Africa. Since then, his life story has been a beacon to the world.
But Mandela's personal life was fraught with operatic tragedy.
When then-president de Klerk released him from Victor Verster prison Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela learned that his wife of 30 years had been unfaithful.
His oldest and favorite son, Thembi, never once visited him in prison, and Mandela only learned about his death in a car accident by telegram in 1969.
He married his first wife, Evelyn Mase, in 1944, but they divorced after arguments over his political involvement. They had four children, a daughter who died in infancy and two sons who perished in adulthood. Mase died in 2005.
But it was his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who caused him crushing humiliation, taking a lover at her home while he was confined to prison.
"It was real agony for him, genuinely horrible," "Mandela" researcher James Sanders said. "She was a big superstar and she had a lover in her house."
Their long, passionate romance began in 1957. She was a social worker and 16 years younger than the 38-year-old activist. Marrying a year later, the couple radiated both political and sexual energy. They had two girls.
Madikizela-Mandela was never allowed to assume the role of first lady because of her infidelities.
Still active in South African politics, she is held in both awe as the "Mother of the Nation" and contempt, for her alleged involvement in human rights abuses, including the torture and murder of 14-year-old activist Stompie Moeketsi in 1989.
But Mandela loved again, capping his 80th birthday in 1998 with his marriage to Graca Machel, the 52-year-old widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel, who died in a 1986 plane crash.
"Late in my life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me," Mandela said of the child rights activist, whom he met shortly after he was released from prison.
"If I could say in a very modest way that's what I was able to give him back," Machel, a noted campaigner for children's rights, said in a 1998 interview. "I'm happy that in his sunset years I was able to be there for him. And he is there for me."
Mandela's three marriages have produced 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
One of them, Mbuso, was particularly close to Mandela -- the same boy who toured the presidential palace as a toddler later attended a high-level state dinner as a 4-year-old in pajamas.
"Mbuso had been in Durban City and was expecting his grandfather to put on his pajamas and sleep with him that night," said Mandela's friend Bizos. "Instead, Nelson was dressed in a suit."
"Mbuso started crying, 'Grandpa, are you going to go out again?' So he brought him," Bizos said. "It didn't matter what the occasion was, the child got preference."
At the same time, Mandela relished his role as an international superstar.
"He loves it," Bizos said. "If it were not for his doctors and senior members of his family, protective as they are, he would accept every invitation.
"The whole world wants to see him and he would willingly do it. He is a humanist down to the core."
In his later years, surrounded by devoted friends and family, Mandela has reconciled with his second wife Winnie, as well as his former foes. Three daughters -- Makaziwe with Mase and Zindziswa and Zenani with Madikizela-Mandela -- are still living.
"He is too generous and forgiving of people," Bizos said. "I can't bring myself to be kind to some of the people who were so cruel to him by implication and others who were detained without trials, had their relatives tortured or killed. He says it's important for the future."
Though today's anniversary is not a national holiday, Mandela's birthday has been an annual cause for celebration across South Africa and on his 90th, two runners holding national flags circled Robben Island, Johannesburg children brought cakes to Mandela's foundation offices and the ANC headquarters unveiled giant banners with his image.
But that iconic image has been "somewhat twisted by time," Mandela researcher Sanders said. "He is really a human being with a lot of faults. He was always incredibly insistent that we not paint him as a saint.
"He's not a mythical figure," he said. "And I know that sounds odd, but one byproduct of racism is to create icons that are incredibly good or evil. He gets that 10 times over."
Although not particularly intellectual, Mandela was a "politician to his fingertips," Sanders said.
"He had enormous energy poured into him -- black liberation and white reconciliation or the global need for some progressive figure of good," he said. "And he didn't want to let them down."
Mandela's imprisonment, especially, shaped his view of the world and his ability to be a reconciler, Sanders said. "The only way you can survive is to go by a set of parameters of what is given," he said.
Still, Mandela gives South Africa, which continues to be challenged by poverty, the highest rate of AIDS in the world and lingering racism, the opportunity to "feel good about themselves," he said.
"He was a contested figure and he urges contestation of who is," Sanders said. "He tried to use his influence and power and the experience that gave him to positive ends and he was marvelous at that."
And to his fellow South Africans, many of whom fled to the United States during the apartheid years, Mandela is a symbol of determination.
"The most fascinating thing about him is he kept his eye on the prize," said Dr. Wulf Utian, consultant in women's health to the Cleveland Clinic, who left South Africa 33 years ago.
"He was focused and never allowed hate or bitterness or political factions or even pressure from different groups within the ANC to take away his clear thinking toward a multi-racial country."
ABC's information specialist Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report.