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Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
Profile: Mandela's magic touch
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela remains an iconic figure in South Africa
As Nelson Mandela embarks on a new challenge - trying to persuade world leaders to help the world's impoverished and abused children - Carolyn Dempster looks at the achievements of the South African statesman:

As president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela wooed and won over a divided nation and charmed the world with a style that is often referred to as the "Madiba magic".

Madiba is Mandela's traditional clan nickname. The magic he deploys: compassion, humour, political shrewdness, and a complete absence of bitterness about the 27 years he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime.

Mandela's contribution to this nation cannot be measured ... It is an achievement that could only have been brought about by a unique man

King Goodwill Zwelithin of the Zulu nation
And, unlike so many other African leaders, five years as president was enough for Mr Mandela. He knew when it was time to step aside.

South Africans across the political and racial divide still see in him the symbol of everything they ever hoped for in an elder statesman, a man of intellect, sincerity, humour and immense moral stature who delivered them from their darkest hour.

Even today, at the age of 83, and supposedly in retirement, Madiba continues his personal quest to promote reconciliation among the races, to educate the nation, and to provide succour to children - especially those orphaned or abandoned in the wake of the Aids pandemic in South Africa.

That is when he is not stepping in to serve as peace-broker in Burundi, one of Africa's most intractable and long-running conflicts.

Hectic schedule

In spite of the fact that he is no longer in government, his schedule remains frenetic. His close friend, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented recently: "He's crazy. He gets about as if he were half his age. He leaves me panting in exhaustion just looking at the schedule he keeps."

Nelson Mandela in Brixton, London
Mr Mandela was warmly received on a visit to the UK

In July this year, Madiba was diagnosed with microscopic prostate cancer, and embarked on a seven-week radiotherapy course which initially left him exhausted, but still smiling.

"I am going to stay on top of this little development (the cancer)" he joked. "And if cancer wins in this world, I am going to move on to the next world. Either way I have an important role to play."

Nelson Mandela's single greatest quality is his ability to reach out and touch the lives of those around him. He has said that his experience in prison taught him to respect even the most ordinary people.

Personal charm

When he was president he used his office and personal charm to exhort prominent individuals and corporations to put their hands into their pockets and help redress the inequalities of the past by building schools and clinics in rural areas.

Nelson Mandela and S African children
Improving education remains a priority for Mr Mandela

He has not stopped. Earlier this year Mandela received a letter from the principal of Thabang Junior School in Soweto asking him to assist the school with renovations.

Mr Mandela deployed a little "Madiba magic" and persuaded the Industrial Development Corporation to grant the school's wish. He personally visited the school and told children " Education is the key for the future: "I want all of you to be more educated than me".

Thabang's principal, Zkile Kosi, spoke for most South Africans when he replied that Mr Mandela's strides to educate and uplift his nation would leave "footprints in the hearts of many people."

Aids campaigner

Mr Mandela also made time this year to visit the bedside of 12-year-old Nkosi Johnson, a small boy dying from Aids who commanded the attention of the world with his brief and brave address to the 13th international conference on HIV/Aids in Durban.

Nkosi Johnson
Nkosi Johnson: "an icon of the struggle for life"

Shortly after Nkosi's death, Mr Mandela paid tribute to him as an "icon of the struggle for life", and has since spoken out publicly about the ravages the HIV/Aids pandemic is wreaking on South Africans.

The Nelson Mandela Children's Foundation is at the forefront of attempts to find ways to intervene to help the population of 800,000 Aids orphans.

When the first democratic elections were held in 1994, and the ANC swept to power, the 75-year-old Mandela initially turned down the presidency, saying he was "too old" for the post, and it should be left to a younger person.

In the event, it is doubtful the country could have progressed as fast, and as far, without him. President Mandela has been central to the so-called miracle of a peaceful transition to democratic rule.

'Head above the heart'

His philosophy was always the head above the heart. "Our talking with the enemy was a domination of the brain over emotion, without which our country would have turned into rivers of blood," he once told an interviewer.

Nelson Mandela and former South African president F W de Klerk
Mandela's played a crucial role in ensuring a smooth transition to democracy

Prior to the 1994 elections, South Africa teetered on the edge of civil war.

While white right-wingers threatened bloody revolution, continuing political clashes between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party threatened to turn parts of the country into a wasteland.

The new ANC-led government inherited a country in economic decline, fractured into numerous administrative bureaucracies fraught with corruption and racial divisions. Newly-appointed ministers were untested and inexperienced in governance.

Although the ANC is a party with a long tradition of consensual collective decision-making, President Mandela frequently took matters into his own hands as the quickest means to an end, demonstrating an authoritarian, disciplinary streak which stands in stark contrast to his public persona.


The steel which lies beneath the fatherly image of the genial and benign leader is seldom unsheathed, but there are many politicians and ANC members who have felt its sharp edge.

In his dealings in the international arena, President Mandela has often demonstrated a naivete

Former president and and fellow Nobel peace prize winner FW de Klerk experienced the steel in public when Mr Mandela tongue-lashed him during a televised debate during the tense negotiations leading up to the 1994 elections.

In the early years as head of state, President Mandela became so closely identified with the fortunes of South Africa that an ill-advised utterance could send the rand spiralling into a decline - which it did, on several occasions.

In his dealings in the international arena, President Mandela has often demonstrated a naivete in his belief that by taking a firm moral stance on issues, one is assured of support.

In his handling of the Burundi conflict, Mr Mandela, as intermediary between the warring factions, has been all-too-quick to announce imminent breakthroughs.

Yet the two main Hutu rebel groups who oppose the Tutsi-dominated military regime have yet to subscribe to Mr Mandela's peace plan, and there is, as yet, no cease-fire.

International statesman

A frequent criticism is that Mandela believes that the South African approach to conflict resolution is the panacea.

Libyan President Colonel Gadaffi and Nelson Mandela
Mr Mandela's quiet diplomacy persuaded Libya to surrender the Lockerbie suspects

His energetic attempts to play the role of international statesman and broker peace in the Middle East were roundly rebuffed by the Israelis.

Nonetheless, when it came to brokering a breakthrough in the Lockerbie saga, Mandela persuaded Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi to hand over the two men alleged to have planted the bomb on the Pan Am flight which blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, to stand trial in an international court.

It was a diplomatic coup which put Nelson Mandela on the map as a world-class mediator.

Personal troubles

Nelson Mandela's personal life can be summed up in one word, turbulent.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Mr Mandela divorced Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1995

His commitment to his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was sorely tested during her trial for involvement in the abduction and murder of a young teenage activist, Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Mr Mandela stayed loyal to his controversial wife then, but the marriage could not sustain the strain of political pressures and the long years of separation.

Mr Mandela told a divorce court in 1995 that while he had no wish to "wash dirty linen in public", he had been the "loneliest man" in the time he spent with Winnie after his release from prison.

The pain was clearly evident when he revealed details of his ex-wife's brazenly adulterous affair with a young lawyer, which Winnie continued after Mr Mandela moved back into the family home. He left in 1992.

The president cut a lonely figure on the world stage for several years, until, during an official banquet in France in 1996, he spoke long and glowingly about the sunshine along the Champs-Elysees.

New love

The cause was a new-found love, Graca Machel, the widow of former Mozambican president Samora Machel. In subsequent interviews the president confessed that he never thought it possible he could "fall in love and feel like this" ever again.

Graca Machel
Graca Machel has brought Mr Mandela's new happiness

Although Graca had proclaimed she would never re-marry, the couple came under considerable pressure to tie the knot, from, among others, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In July 1998 the president sprung a surprise on the nation, and some members of his own family, when he celebrated his 80th birthday by getting married, for the third time. He has been radiating happiness ever since then.

When he stepped down from office and paved the way for Thabo Mbeki to take over as president in June 1999, Mandela told journalists: "I welcome the possibility of revelling in obscurity" - to much amused laughter.

Ideally he wanted to spend more time in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, but the call of his duties as a husband and father not only to his children, but the nation, has been stronger.

He frequently appears at Graca's side these days as she goes about her duties, and he continues to pop up in remote parts of South Africa opening schools, bestowing cheques and engaging with his people.

He has said on more than one occasion that he would prefer to be remembered as Mandela the man, not Mandela the myth.

'A unique man'

This year he became the first recipient of the King Shaka Award, in honour of the king who founded the Zulu nation.

The current Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini paid tribute to Mr Mandela, who is a royal member of the Thembu clan in the Xhosa nation, with these words:

"Mandela's contribution to this nation cannot be measured or repeated. It is an achievement that could only have been brought about by a unique man, at a unique point in history."

"Our debt of gratitude knows no boundaries, and our love and honour to him knows no limits."

BBC News Online will be talking to Nelson Mandela online on Wednesday 29 August 2001.

Click here to put your question to Mr Mandela.





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