By the time he had finished his address the audience were on their fourth standing ovation, oblivious to the irony that among their ranks were some, perhaps many, who had helped to prop up the apartheid regime for nearly half a century and thus helped to keep their hero incarcerated on Robben Island.
For John Major, acting as warm-up man for the leader who needed "no introduction", it must have been a bittersweet occasion. In common with the rest of the hall, he thrilled to the mere association with Nelson Mandela, carried along on the extraordinary tidal wave of emotion, affection and awe that is accompanying the President on his state visit to these shores.
But it was also a reminder of the limitations of mere politicians. Mr Major has spoken at two Confederation of British Industry dinners and received, at best, only polite applause. What would he give for just one ounce of the adulation that Mr Mandela inspired yesterday from the hard- bitten ranks of businessmen?
President Mandela was at the Barbican to thank Britain and its business community. "Without the support and encouragement of the British people and support from other stakeholders our victory would have been well-nigh impossible," he said in response to one questioner.
But he was also there to sell the new South Africa to a still-cautious worldwide investment community whose finance is critical to the success of his rainbow nation.
Britain, President Mandela said, is of key economic importance to South Africa. British investments stand at pounds 12bn, nine of the country's top 20 foreign employers are British, and in the last three years two-way trade has doubled to pounds 4bn.
"The central message I bring to you this morning is that we should build on what exists. It is a message infused with urgency precisely because beyond the profound political changes, the iniquitous system that we set out to destroy is still alive and well. The poverty, decay in the social fabric and profound inequality that are the product of the past can only be eradicated with your co-operation."
South Africa, he promised, would play its part in the rehabilitation process needed to inspire investor confidence. In- flation is at a 20-year low and manufacturing industry is buoyant, yet in order to achieve its social goals and job-creation targets, South Africa needs to double its growth rate to 6 per cent by the end of the decade.
President Mandela has made a start. His government is preaching wage moderation to a workforce long starved of basic amenities; it is lowering tariff barriers; it is slowly dismantling exchange controls; it is introducing "tax holidays" for investments that create jobs.
Above all, he said, it has embarked on a programme to sell off some of the 173bn rand worth of assets in the state sector, starting with its telecommunications industry, airlines, radio stations and gas utility.
South Africa, President Mandela said, had inherited part of Britain's soul, creating a bond that went beyond sporting and cultural links. "You have made our re-entry into the global economy a pleasant landing," he said; now South Africa wanted to capitalise on that.
Here was the hard sell, presented in statesmanlike fashion. Britain is the financial bridgehead into South Africa for the rest of Europe and the United States.
Back inside the hall the pledges were coming thick and fast, not least from Mr Major who said that, as South Africa's friend, Britain would argue for the widest possible access for South African goods in Europe.
The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, followed that up with a pledge to put Britain's expertise in privatisation at the disposal of South Africa, while the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, promised support for exporters through the Export Credits Guarantee Department and announced that Britain would host a trade mission to Cape Town next year in support of its bid for the 2004 Olympics.
Mr Major said there would be government-to-government support but he stressed that it would always be dwarfed by commercial investment. How much could the Mandela factor add to those, one of his entourage was asked? "Who can say exactly, but the President has got to be worth at least an extra billion on the trade balance," he guessed. Amen to that, said the 400 businessmen.
Donald MacIntyre, page 19Reuse content