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When John Simpson met Mandela

On the eve of the World Cup in South Africa, The BBC's World Affairs Editor recalls the day he came face to face with the father of that nation for the first time – and why he is like no one else on earth

It's getting dark, and I'm hopelessly lost. There are few street signs in Soweto and scarcely any maps. I'm starting to feel scared – not so much because there's a lot of crime here, but because I'm now seriously late. If I manage to offend the man I've come to see, perhaps he'll show a different side of himself – an unpleasant, overbearing side. Then all the admiration I've had for him will evaporate, and he'll be just like all the other public figures you've previously admired: smaller, meaner, vainer than you'd hoped.

Now it's completely dark, but I manage to find his house eventually. The door opens, and yellow light shines all round me. "Come in, come in," says a warm, familiar, somehow very personal voice. The apologies start flowing from me and are waved away with a long, elegant hand. It is starting to be clear to me that Nelson Mandela will not after all be like other public figures I have met. And, typically, instead of allowing me to begin stammering out the admiration I feel for him, he gets in some words of kindness for me first. Whenever I have a new book out, the publishers put the words he said to me that Soweto evening prominently on the cover. I am embarrassed and proud in equal proportions, a bit like wearing a medal in public. I certainly don't ask them not to do it.

Right from that moment I understood what it was about Nelson Mandela that made people worship him. It wasn't just the humility, it wasn't even that extraordinary forgiveness and lack of bitterness. It was the way he looked you straight in the eyes and spoke just to you – to the person you wanted to be, perhaps, rather than the one you actually were. Once, at a grand banquet in his honour at the Guildhall in the City of London, my wife, who is South African and distinctly impulsive, broke away from our table and greeted him in her native Afrikaans as he made his way past us. He stopped and talked to her in his own courtly Afrikaans for an agonisingly long time, ignoring the frozen smiles behind him, showing a real interest in her. "We need you back in South Africa," he said. "When are you coming home?"

My warmest memory comes from a visit he made to my old college at Cambridge. Remarkably, Magdalene managed to persuade him to accept an honorary fellowship in person; even for his honorary doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge and a slew of other grand universities, the chancellors had had to troop down to London and hand them to him in a ceremony, like a Moonie mass wedding. But Mandela made the journey up to see us, and the college let me film it for the BBC. His minders, especially Zelda la Grange, another Afrikaner, formidable to everyone else and remarkably protective towards him, tried to cut our interview short, but as ever Mandela was interested in talking, and in the person holding the microphone; I found myself having to steer the conversation back to him all the time.

Then he went into the hall, and as I listened to him speak I felt that this was the high point of my entire professional existence. Mandela is an excellent speaker, with a real feeling for his audience and what they want to hear; again, I suppose this comes from that deeply personal sympathy for each individual he meets. He speaks very slowly, but everyone hangs on each of the words in that rounded, gentle but firm voice of his.

"I am very nervous about speaking here," he announced to the assembled dons and students. "For three reasons. First, I am an old-age pensioner."

A faint titter of amusement went round the hall, but uncertainly: was he joking? Or was he simply being self-deprecating?

"Secondly, because I am unemployed."

A slightly louder, more confident laugh; he had stepped down as South Africa's president not long before.

"And thirdly, because I have a very baaaaad criminal record."

The laughter then nearly broke the stained-glass windows.

I haven't seen him much since then. Nowadays, Nelson Mandela is getting on, and there is always a long queue of people who want to see him more for their own reasons than for himself; I don't really want to be part of that. He can be forgetful, and he can sometimes be uncomfortably frank about South African politics, which is inclined to cause awkwardness. He is very fond of his house in the charming Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, and still spends a lot of time there. In the past he would sometimes turn up at a café with a small group, smiling and acknowledging the cheers and applause of the other customers. But he was never much of a man for restaurants and hotels. His tastes are remarkably simple, and his favourite drink is tap water at room temperature. And famously, of course, he makes his own bed every morning.

Yet he never forgets that he himself has royal blood; and although he has a courtly respect for the Queen (just to hear those long vowels when he calls her, as he invariably does, "Her Majesty the Queen", tells you he is a royalist with a sense of history), he treats her with just the same mild politeness as he treated the Magdalene students, or my irrepressible wife, or the gardener who tends his roses.

And then there is his playful, unstately side. The first time I saw Mandela as president, at the culmination of the magnificent process of election and inauguration, he gave me a thumbs-up sign. It was like being winked at during the Coronation.

His house at Qunu in the former Transkei, one of the most hauntingly beautiful parts of a country with more beauty than anywhere else I know, is where Mandela goes to be with his family. This is where he likes to gather his children and grandchildren, and they treat him exactly as one of them, with no obvious signs of reverence at all.

There is a serenity about him that often comes to the very old if their health is reasonably good, as his is. Whatever demons he had were dealt with during his 27 years in jail. Way back in 1990, just after his release [from Robben Island], I interviewed the prison officer who had been assigned to him during his last years in prison. "I never once saw him lose his temper," he said. "In fact, I never saw him anything but happy."

Like a sizeable proportion of the entire human race, I feel about Nelson Mandela much as Ben Jonson felt about Shakespeare: I love and honour him this side of idolatry. As with most journalists, this for me is pretty much a unique feeling. Finally, here's another literary reference: the Russian writer Maxim Gorky once said of Tolstoy: "As long as he is alive, no man is entirely an orphan." Precisely the same is true, I would say, of Nelson Mandela.

This article appears in the June issue of 'High Life' ( bahighlife.com), available on all British Airways flights ( ba.com)