The man who, after 27 years in jail, transformed a land of racial oppression into a striving rainbow democracy, deliberately cast himself as the bystander at President Mbeki's inauguration, which came two weeks after the landslide election victory of the African National Congress (ANC).
As his era formally ended, Mr Mandela, 80, did not speak before the 4,500 dignitaries from more than 100 countries who had gathered in the Union Buildings amphitheatre. After the swearing-in ceremony, as Mr Mbeki circulated among the Gaddafis and Arafats and all eyes were on the fly- past, Mr Mandela quietly sneaked away, so far ahead of schedule that he and his wife, Graca Machel, had to wait on the pavement for their car.
The couple reappeared briefly before 100,000 people gathered on the Union Buildings lawn, but only so that Mr Mandela could underline his faith in his successor. "For one and a half years, he has led the African National Congress as its president. He has travelled around this country and met its people," Mr Mandela said.
It was left to the incoming president, who is expected to announce his cabinet today, to pay tribute to the "generation that pulled our country out of the abyss... and placed it on the pedestal of hope".
Mr Mandela had his moment much earlier, at a small gathering in Soweto in the hours before the sharp winter sun pierced the township smog. Here he was "tata" (daddy) and Madiba to a crowd of about 200 people whom he assured: "I love each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart."
At the memorial garden dedicated to Hector Peterson, the 13-year-old who died at the start of the Soweto uprising on 16 June exactly 23 years ago, there was a fleeting moment of "Madiba magic" - his extraordinary personal generosity - in a day which otherwise was marked by the change of style which South Africa expects under the more formal and intellectual President Mbeki.
The country's second black president made it clear that he represented a generational shift and repeated his call for an "African century". "The full meaning of liberation will not be realised until our people are freed both from oppression and from the dehumanising legacy of deprivation we inherited from our past... We will achieve our renaissance," said the President who will be 57 tomorrow.
It was as if the impetus of hope for South Africa which characterised the 1994 inauguration of Mr Mandela had shifted to an air of optimism for the whole continent. President Mbeki delivered a very African simile. "Our country is in that period which the seTswana people call the dawning of the dawn, when only the tips of the horn of the cattle can be seen etched against the morning sky."Reuse content