Mandela: a man of all the people

He's 90 today - and every A-lister wants to be photographed with him. But as John Carlin writes in this moving tribute, his true greatness lies in his deep respect for ordinary men and women
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John Reinders was chief of presidential protocol under FW de Klerk, but when the ANC won the elections of April 1994, he thought he'd better look for something else to do. Obviously, Nelson Mandela would want to appoint one of his own people to such a sensitive post. Reinders got in touch with the prisons department, where he had worked before, and discovered, to his relief, that it would be happy to take him back.

On the day after Mandela's presidential inauguration, Reinders arrived early at his office in the Union Buildings in Pretoria with a couple of cardboard boxes. He went to his office and began to fill them with his belongings. Then there was a knock at the door. It was another early riser – Mandela.

"Good morning! How are you?" the new president said, before adding, with a frown: "But... what are you doing?" "Mr President," Reinders replied, "I am putting away my things. I am off to a new job."

"Ah, and where are you going?" "To Correctional Services, Mr President." "Correctional Services? Ah, no. No, no, I do not recommend that," said Mandela, breaking into a complicit smile. "I know Correctional Services very well. Ve-ry well. No, no, I do not recommend that at all."

Reinders, a little bemused, smiled back. "Now," Mandela said, "by all means leave, if that is what you wish, but you must understand that I would like you to stay. We have no experience of running an office like this and we need people like you to help us. It will only be five years, as I intend to serve only one presidential term. I would be most grateful if you stayed."

Right there and then, Reinders started emptying his cardboard boxes. He remained with Mandela to the end, accompanying him on innumerable foreign and domestic trips, never ceasing to be astonished and charmed by the unfailing kindness and courtesy Mandela showed him. From the friendly greeting he gave him every morning, to the concern he always expressed for the welfare of his family, to the time during a state visit to Rome when Mandela introduced him, by name, to the Pope.

Mandela quit the presidency in 1999, but Reinders stayed on, serving now under Thabo Mbeki. A year later, he received an unexpected but most welcome phone call. It was Mandela, inviting him and his family to Sunday lunch at his home in Johannesburg. Reinders turned up with his wife and two teenage children, expecting there to be several more guests. But no. It was just Mandela and him and his three family members.

The meal began and Mandela raised a glass. Turning to Reinders' wife and children, he said: "I would like to apologise to you for depriving you for so long of the presence of your husband and father owing to the demanding duties he was obliged to undertake on our behalf. But, I must tell you, the job he did for us was magnificent. Magnificent!" The lunch ended and Mandela accompanied the Reinders family to the door. As they left in their car, he stood in the drive, waving goodbye.

I heard these and similar stories from Reinders a couple of years ago. Reinders, who loved Mandela like a father, would shed tears as he recalled Mandela's extraordinary decency towards him. (A huge, gentle, courteous, funny, expansive second-row-forward of a man, I was very saddened to learn recently that he had fallen ill and died.)

Reinders' tales were absolutely of a piece with dozens of anecdotes I have heard about Mandela over the years. His benevolence towards ordinary people – be they chambermaids at five-star hotels, or the forgotten old men from the early days of the liberation struggle whom he invites to his home – is what the anecdotes are about. They go to the heart of the man and his greatness, which, I believe, consists of this: the absolute coherence between each and every detail of his behaviour in private and the principles he has always set forward in public life. His principles – non-racialism, democracy, justice and so forth – can be summarised in one excellent and much-abused word: respect. Respect for all men and women, equally.

I say much-abused because I've met famous people, like Michael Jordan, the basketball star, who bang on about "respect, respect" the whole time without realising that what they really mean is that respect is a fine thing when shown to them, but irrelevant – unimaginable – as a commodity they themselves might extend to others.

With Mandela, it is a holy principle of life, to be put unfailingly into practice no matter whether there are cameras or important personages around, whether there are political points to be scored, or not. The thing about the Reinders stories, especially the invitation to lunch long after the two had stopped working together, is that it reveals Mandela in all his entirely typical, indiscriminately respectful human kindness.

And there lies the secret, I think, of his charisma, and of the legacy he will leave. It has nothing to do with his speech-making, for which he has no talent, and it has everything to do with his integrity, a bright and seamless integrity, so hard and unbreakable that he shines like a diamond.

John Carlin's book on Nelson Mandela, 'Playing the Enemy', will be published in September by Atlantic Books (£18.99)