A sinning saint grapples with the legacy of evil: President Nelson Mandela tells John Carlin of his determination to chart a middle way between black aspirations and white fears

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We are 10 minutes into the interview when a white woman, a junior member of staff, walks into the wood- panelled presidential chamber office carrying a tray with two cups of tea and a glass of mineral water.

Nelson Mandela, debonair in an immaculately tailored dark suit, springs to his feet, ram-rod straight. 'Good morning]' he smiles.' How are you?'

'Fine, Mr Mandela.' He introduces the woman, who says her name is Lenoy Coetzee. 'The water's for you, Mr Mandela.'

'Thank you very much.'

It was not the occasion to engage in further conversation with Ms Coetzee but the chances are that she has been working at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria, for some time. Certainly since before Mr Mandela's inauguration as president on 10 May.

In common with the vast majority of civil servants, the chief beneficiaries of apartheid's giant affirmative action programme for Afrikaners, she will not be losing her job. For the natural courtesy the world's youngest 75-year-old exhibits in private has extended to the political sphere. It is the policy of the African National Congress, despite its landslide electoral victory, not to do the time-honoured revolutionary thing and replace wholesale one set of apparatchiks with another.

Even the policemen who man the gates and check your bags upon arrival at the red- brick monolith are white. The pictures are the same ones F W de Klerk gazed upon before he was moved to the deputy president's wing: scenes of lonely ox-carts on the yellow veld. Mr Mandela's secretary is new (and black), as is his press secretary, and the flag behind the presidential desk has changed, but a big bronze shield bearing white South Africa's ancient motto - ex unitate vires - remains on the office wall.

Had he not thought of taking the shield down?

'We have to bring about a lot of changes in this country from the point of view of symbols: the names of cities, towns, airports, buildings, roads. But this is not something that must be done piecemeal. The offices where we are, the cabinet room here, the parliament where we met: these are the places where the most diabolical polices were hatched and if we are going to be consistent we ought not to be meeting here, we ought not to be meeting in that parliament, we ought to be meeting in the open veld. We have to sit down to work out a plan and now as the builders of the new South Africa we have to be alive to the sensibilities of the other group that has now lost power.'

Mr Mandela said he was particularly disturbed by a decision taken at a meeting he was unable to attend to change the name of the Verwoerd Building - the government headquarters in Cape Town named after the National Party prime minister who, more zealously than any other, enforced the ideology of apartheid.

'You see, Verwoerd's grandson is in the movement (the ANC) now and his wife is in parliament. However much they disliked apartheid that is still their beloved grandfather and we can't be insensitive and just single them out. But there are certainly going to be changes and some are going to upset part of the community. But they are inevitable: we must portray the true history of South Africa and that history must reflect the reality that it's not just the white minority who have contributed to the history of this country.'

In place names, as in all things, it is Mr Mandela's intention to find a middle way between black aspirations and white fears. His chief concern, he said, was to ensure that the government of national unity should live up to its name. Included in the cabinet are the National Party and Inkatha, not least the ANC's bogeyman: Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Was not this the oddest collection of individuals ever gathered together in a government? How could they possibly work together effectively?

'That question has already been answered. There is a new spirit in the country. At our first cabinet meetings all the cliches that came up during the elections have disappeared and people are now working out ways how to make the lives of our people better. There are of course differences here and there and the leader must always be alert to ensure that those differences are worked out.'

Mr Mandela's impersonal description of himself as 'the leader', his habit of speaking in the collective 'we', his reluctance to use the first person singular reveal his determination to be seen not as the colossus of South African politics but as one more individual in what he punctiliously insists on describing as the 'collective' ANC leadership. But they are also symptoms of a man who has sacrificed more than most and is either unwilling or unable to drop his guard and expose his inner feelings. Perhaps all saints are like that.

Was he a saint?

'Well, it depends on your definition of a saint. Some people have said a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. From that angle, you may classify me as a saint, because I have many weakness.'

What were his weaknesses?

'Others might be more authoritative in this regard.' Did he, for example, not suffer fools gladly? 'Sometimes I lose my calmness . . . There are times when I can't control myself, for example when someone asks a question which I think is foolish and shows some degree of bias towards blacks.'

How - I tried another tack - had his life changed in the last month? 'Not much . . . except of course for the little bit of pomp.'

The word was that he wanted to stay at his house in Houghton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg, rather than move into the presidential residence. Was that true?

'I still live there and I wanted to stay there and to travel every day to the Union Buildings but the security people, as well as my colleagues like Mr de Klerk, said I should stay here, at the presidency.'

Might this curious nostalgia for something so recent reveal a chink in the armoury? Was he a sentimentalist at heart?

'It's a house which I've lived in for almost three years now and it has got that family setting, you know, warm. I'm there with my grandchildren and the ladies who help in the home. And then I've got very good neighbours and the formalities that are observed there are not so rigid, although the police have come in and camped inside my home. Nevertheless, that informality is there and I like to be there. I can relax.'

The grandchildren, of whom he has 20, offered the key to unlock the man - or at least a glimpse of him. This was his answer to the question whether he had been born a leader or had become one.

'When I compare myself to the youth today there is no comparison. They know far more that I did at their stage. My grandson, who is four, can ask me questions and know about things I never dreamt of, even when I was 12 or 16. He'll ask me 'Why did Mr de Klerk take you to prison?' and 'What is the ANC going to do for us?' and 'What has it done for you? Was it the ANC that sent you to jail?' Remarkable]'

His grandfatherly pride had softened him and it seemed like the moment to ask what he would do after he retired, after - as he insisted he would - he had completed his five-year presidential term.

'Do all the things that I've missed: to be with my children and grandchildren and with my family; the ability to sit down and to read what I would like to read. You know in prison - although it was tragedy to spend 27 years in prison - one of the advantages was the ability to sit down and to think. This is one of the things that I miss most. There is not time to read literature, novels: this is something I like very much. It is the route you would like to follow in order to develop yourself.'

Before he embarks on the road of self-development at the age of 80, it is politics that will continue to consume his passions. When he says that providing jobs and houses for the poor is his greatest priority, he means it. When he tells the anonymous black masses at vast ANC rallies that he loves them, he means it. Discernible now is a seed of love - as comfortably distant as it is sincere - for the anonymous white masses too.

Was he surprised at the degree to which whites appeared to have adapted to the political changes?

He was excited by the question. 'You know, that is perfectly true. Yes. Look at the lady who brought in the tea. Look at this] It is really unbelievable the way they have just adjusted to the new position. And you can also take the politicians, people like de Klerk, the way they have adjusted to their position in public functions. They do not push themselves.'

How did he explain it?

'I think it is people, the nature of the human being. People want peace. They want security for themselves and for their children. I think also there are many men and women of all groups who want to contribute to the development of South Africa and this is their chance and they have seized it.

'No, this has really been remarkable, absolutely remarkable to see on television the Afrikaner farmers queuing with their black workers to vote and even chatting to them. It's really remarkable. He smiles and looks away, as if to savour the consummation of a lifelong dream. His voice trails off. 'Remarkable. Remarkable . . .'

(Photograph omitted)