"Perhaps the fact of our presence here today might serve to close a circle which is two hundred years old," said Mr Mandela.
Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, capped the praise from the two Houses of Parliament when he later told MPs that the South African President was "one of the political giants of our time".
The way in which Mr Mandela had left prison without bitterness and set about healing the wounds in South Africa "must be regarded as one of the more remarkable political achievements of our century," said Mr Heseltine. And Mr Heseltine insisted that everything Mr Mandela had done was "within the context of the rule of law".
Baroness Thatcher, who once dismissed Mr Mandela's African National Congress as "a typical terrorist organisation" was in the audience of ministers, Opposition leaders, diplomats and peers when the President was given the rare honour of speaking to the two Houses of Parliament.
The friendship was underlined from the moment Mr Mandela entered the hall, hand-in-hand with the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who helped him down the red-carpeted steps to the platform in Westminster Hall.
Mrs Boothroyd recalled being a "black sash" protester outside South Africa House inTrafalgar Square during the years of apartheid. Today, she said, Mr Mandela would be going to South Africa House "where you were vilified", but this time as head of state.
As the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, recalled that "patriots and martyrs have stood trial for their lives" in the 1,000-year-old hall, the former prisoner gave a gentle nod. Among the front-row VIPs were the Prime Minister and Norma Major; Michael Heseltine and his wife, Anne; Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and his wife Cherie; and Sir Edward Heath.
The affection for Mr Mandela was demonstrated outside when cooks, security men, messengers, and secretaries, stopped work to catch sight of the President, who, on a previous visit to the Commons, was restricted to a meeting behind closed doors.
He told the joint Houses of Parliament that British colonists had seized land from his forebears. Eighty years ago, his predecessors in the leadership of the ANC came to Parliament to plead to be treated equally with the white settlers.
"As eloquently and passionately, the British rulers [of the day spoke in these Houses] to say they could not and would not amend their agenda with regard to South Africa," he said. "Despite that rebuff and the terrible cost we had to bear as a consequence, we return to this honoured place neither with pikes nor a desire for revenge, nor, even, a plea to assuage our hunger for bread.
"We come to you as friends."
He did not dwell on the colonial past, but stressed the help that some British leaders, from William Wilberforce to Harold Macmillan, had given to bring about change for the better in South Africa.Reuse content