Zuma was delivering the Tata Mandela Memorial Lecture at the University of Zululand in Empangeni, north of KwaZulu-Natal, on Wednesday night.
He said that although a lot had been said about Mandela and his feats, such was the life and times of the iconic statesman that it was impossible to relate all his experiences on just one occasion.
“You can take one aspect of Madiba and speak a long time. As we all know, attempts are made to cast Madiba in whatever manner that speakers and writers wish to use his name to bolster some agenda or another.
“They speak about Madiba and focus on elements of his rich character, associated with the role of Madiba in the area of negotiations and that he was a good negotiator, a peacemaker and a reconciler,” said Zuma.
He said that Mandela was an extraordinary personality in a historically divided nation.
“This is precisely because we lived in a nation that was divided for a long time, slightly different than other countries, partly because only in South Africa did the rulers legislate on institutionalised racism.
“Those who were opposed to his ideas and beliefs hated communists and they called him a communist and a monster. This is how they described Madiba for a long time,” said Zuma.
He said that once Madiba was released from his 27 years’ imprisonment, he made an outstanding contribution to “solving our South African national problems”.
“All those who had been saying those things about him suddenly loved him like an angel, they in fact singled Madiba out as a wonderful man who belonged to a very bad organisation called the ANC.
“They forgot that he was what he was because he was shaped and developed by the ANC; it was the ANC’s reflection on him as it reflects on many of our leaders. In fact, some parties even campaigned using Madiba’s name.”
He said Mandela was a great leader who did things with dignity and with a great sense of caring, and that he emerged from South Africa to become one of the most outstanding leaders in the world.
“The UN did what it has never done before by declaring the birthday of Madiba as an international day on which people should do something in respect of the period of years he spent in prison.”
As the ANC also celebrates 100 years since the birth of Mama Albertina Sisulu, Zuma said that Sisulu had represented women in several ways as a politically respected leader.
“She held very key positions in our struggle, she was one of the presidents of the United Democratic Front.
“In her own name and right she stood as a leader, but she also represented the wives of many of the comrades who were arrested for long terms in prison,” he said.