Love isn't easy, with a name like Mandela

Nelson Mandela must sometimes wince at the esteem in which he is held. The aura of greatness cloaking the South African President is so strong that his plan for a brief romantic holiday in Britain was abandoned in favour of an official four-day trip.

So it was that Mr Mandela, 79, cheerful, relaxed and holding hands with his companion, Graca Machel, 61, arrived in London yesterday to confront the media en masse. Attention focused mostly on his intentions towards his beloved, widow of the Mozambican president. Would they marry? "Those are questions one doesn't answer in public," he replied.

His immediate intention had been to visit Britain as Mrs Machel's partner: the couple are due in Colchester tomorrow, where Mrs Machel, an expert on children's rights, is to pick up an honorary degree from the University of Essex. But, as a spokeswoman for the South African High Commission said: "With the name `Mandela' you have a bit of a problem just going as a companion."

By popular request and with warm memories of Mr Mandela's successful state visit last summer, this visit was upgraded by the two governments. Mr Mandela and Mrs Machel took tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace yesterday and meet the Prince of Wales on Friday at a dinner given by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. The President will meet Tony Blair tomorrow.

Bowing to the inevitable, the President has given one interview to the BBC - but he used the slot to publicise the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, a charity set up with a third of the presidential salary to help the young and deprived.

He has lived with political sainthood for some time; the dark side of such an image is the excess invested in one, mortal, man. Too many fear for South Africa in a world without Mandela. Which is why he told the BBC that Vice-President Thabo Mbeki "is the de facto ruler of South Africa".

And at least today Mr Mandela and his love are free to do as they please. It does not happen often. Mr Mandela jokes about the requests he receives for meetings, at home and abroad, saying he must make up for the time lost during his 27 years in prison.

But at last - following his divorce from Winnie Mandela, disgraced for her part in the murder of a teenage boy but still venerated in the townships - the President seems to have found real happiness with Mrs Machel.

The couple, coy about their relationship in the past, are now happy to be seen in public and in love. Mrs Machel, who has worked for Unicef with Rwandan children horribly damaged by the massacres there in 1994, seems the perfect consort for the President.

No political leader alive can match Mr Mandela, which explains the excitement on the Colchester campus, for example, about tomorrow's ceremony.

"It's strange," said Richard Lister, of the University of Essex. "I mean, do you expect one of the great figures of the 20th century to drop in on you at work?"

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