With his halo intact and glowing... ...Saint Nelson is coming to town

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Nelson Mandela is a saint; or at least, the closest a man can come to being a saint while still being a head of government.

When FW de Klerk finally ordered the release of Mandela after 27 years in jail, the world knew that he was freeing a legend. Amazingly, six fraught years later, Mandela's halo is largely in place, which accounts for the sense of excitement that much of Britain feels about his arrival here today for a week of state pomp, topped with a visit to Brixton.

He is, in some respects, an unlikely leader. The President is no fiery orator and he is a painfully ponderous interviewee. In the era of the spin doctor and the news bite, Mandela with his old-world charm - preserved in part by his incarceration - seems a relic from another age. But at home and abroad there is agreement that Nelson Mandela, 78 this month, is one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.

Even amongst South African whites who once regarded him as more black devil than saint, his standing is incredibly high. Shaking his head, a white South African driver sums up his view of the ANC in government: "Crime up, rand down." Johannesburg's city centre has "turned black" and is infested with muggers. The country's finances are in the hands of a minister who cannot do his sums. But mention Nelson and the man turns colour blind and melts. "President Mandela is marvellous," he says. "All those years in prison ... and yet he shows no bitterness."

Mandela's popularity owes much to South Africa's extraordinary negotiated revolution, the ANC's long, hard struggle against the most formidable white-minority rule in sub-Saharan Africa, and the heart-warming justness of the cause. But it is Mandela's own qualities which seem to allow him to float untainted above the mire of modern politics. The public perception is of warmth, goodness and integrity; more spiritual leader than grubby pragmatic politician.

Self-sacrifice sets him apart at a time when politicians are seen as vain, greedy and primarily self-interested. South African novelist Nadine Gordimer points to Mandela's remarkable memory for people and family and details as evidence of an unusual level of "other-directness." As one Johannesburg newspaper editorial observed, President Mandela is the first statesmen since George Washington whom people believe is incapable of telling a lie.

Of course, it helps if your political rise involved none of the usual back-stabbing and corruption. Mandela never lobbied or conspired for leadership. He simply ascended from prison, an international symbol of black suffering, as leader in waiting.

And yet he seems always to have had a sense of destiny. When he walked to the prison quarry for another day's back-breaking labour he would apparently practice walking like a president. His dignity even intimidated his jailers. Mandela was raised in the royal house of the Thembu tribe in the Transkei. The tribal aristocrat turned freedom-fighter is a rare concoction. Walter Sisulu, lifelong friend, comrade and cell mate on Robbens Island, says of Mandela - "Even at 24 I marked him out as a teacher."

Mandela proved a skilled and fierce negotiator during the dangerous path to transition. But two years after South Africa's first democratic elections, his role is essentially that of racial conciliator. Mandela is a living symbol of collective suffering and the possibility of forgiveness and moving on.

Prison robbed him of family, and divorce from Winnie broke his heart. Some of his grandchildren live with him, but the demands of office mean he spends too little time with them. Sisulu says: "He is a family man, and so we must assume that he is lonely."

Some criticism has surfaced. Young radicals complain that Mandela bends over backwards for whites, while the majority of blacks languish in appalling conditions. Reconciliation, they argue, has had its day.

But it is to Mandela's credit that among the majority of ordinary South Africans, his philosophy of reconciliation is still treasured. "He has lived his life for all of South Africans, black and white," says Jacob, an elderly black South African. "We never forgot him ... he was the Messiah."

At his pre-London visit briefing last week, Mr Mandela was characteristically modest about his own stature and the overriding interest in what analysts call the WAM (What After Mandela) factor. He will not stand at the 1999 elections. A new democracy deserved better than a septuagenarian leader, he said. There were younger men - "head and shoulders" above him - ready to "shake and move" the country. Increasingly, policy matters in South Africa are handled by Thabo Mbeki, deputy president, who has been anointed as successor.

Allister Sparks, the eminent South African author and journalist, says Mandela's standing is all the more remarkable given the international contempt for Africa. But he is not surprised by his enduring appeal. "The world is ruled by political dwarfs," argues Mr Sparks.

"I don't think there is a leader in the world today who can command respect like Mr Mandela. They are largely grey like John Major or a bit tacky like Clinton. Mandela believes in something. What do the rest of us believe in?"

Leading article, page 13