South African Elections: The long walk ends at home for Mandela

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE military helicopter carrying Nelson Mandela clatters in to land at his rural retreat on the eve of the election, the powerful rotor blades whip up a sand storm that has builders in overalls scurrying for cover.

The aircraft has come to rest alongside the foundations of an extension being built at the Qunu home of the democratic South Africa's founding president.

If anyone doubts that Mr Mandela is serious about retiring, and serious about spending as much time as he can on the burgeoning farm he has made near the village in which he spent his childhood, they should ask the builders hard at work at Qunu. Two weeks before he formally hands over to Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela is already considering pressing domestic issues. He first built a small house in Qunu - modelled, remarkably enough, on the warder's bungalow he had occupied at Victor Verster prison - but the farm buildings are rapidly growing into a mini village of their own, a sort of "Madibaworld" 19 miles from Umtata, the regional capital.

The latest extension will add much-needed accommodation, he explains. "Last Christmas we got my whole family together, and with Graca's [his wife, Graca Machel] too, it was chaos. Chaos, I tell you!"

Hence a new wing near the peaceful enclave he has created in the undulating Transkei hills, a green sanctuary of clipped lawns and flower beds, sleeping chickens and a panoramic view of the huts and cattle that dot the landscape all the way to the horizon.

Mr Mandela relaxes visibly when he arrives at Qunu; it is something I have seen happen more than once. If, somewhere in his being, there is a gnawing concern that he will feel unsettled and unfulfilled once separated from the lifeblood of governance, he keeps that feeling private.

"No, I am very happy to retire," he said in Qunu on Tuesday before preparing to return to Johannesburg for election day. "This is not a sudden thing. Thabo has been running the country for more than two years. I'm very excited that I'm going to have some spare time, like I haven't had since I came out of prison."

But the question on many minds must be put, as the reality of a post-Mandela era begins to sink in for South Africans: will you make political pronouncements on issues you feel strongly about, once you are retired?

Mr Mandela smiles the smile of a man who believes he is being asked a loaded question. When he answers, he does so carefully, with a grin: "I am a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC and I will listen to my president," he says.

Then, more earnestly: "It's not nice to hang around. You must get out of the way and not overshadow - not that Thabo would be easily overshadowed."

Mr Mandela says he looks forward to the inauguration on June 16, which he thinks will be an important occasion on the scale of the May 1994 event This time, however, he will probably have more time to digest the detail rather than be swamped.

So how does he plan to divide his time in future?

"I have grandchildren, one who is six years old," he says. "So I must spend time [in Johannesburg] while they are at school. In the holidays, we'll be here or in Cape Town", where he and Mrs Machel have recently bought a house. For a moment the old man allows his mind to drift, considering the sort of benign future that seemed so unlikely at the end of the last decade in apartheid South Africa.

He is at peace in this home, with its mementoes and memorabilia of a whirlwind, seminal life since he became a free man again. There are glass baubles on the table - a buffalo, a lion, a rhino, a leopard. There is a large, framed landscape painting in oils on the wall, a gift from a grateful community. On another wall hangs an outsized, happy portrait of himself and Graca.

Mr Mandela sips at his coffee and gingerly takes off his shoes. He chats on the telephone to Graca, who is in Johannesburg. He's having a nice day, he tells her, he's giving a small lunch at Qunu and he had a successful morning with some businessmen who are going to rebuild a community centre. He could almost be just another nice, old, dignified gentleman contemplating his twilight years, rather than an icon of the 20th century soon to become the world's most famous retired statesman.

Shortly, though, he breaks the reverie and an amused glint comes in to his eyes. "Do you know," he chuckles, "recently a British journalist asked my lawyer where Mandela got the money from to build all these houses?

"My lawyer looked straight at him and said, `Have you ever heard of Long Walk To Freedom [his autobiography]?' Then he laughed like hell."