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Nelson Mandela life story: An icon for our times

His charisma was such that every megastar wanted a share in it

Nelson Mandela's collection of garishly patterned shirts took a lot of punishment in the last decade or so of his life. A throng of global celebrities made private pilgrimages to meet him, pat his sleeve, fling their arms about him and pose for photographs. They came from every corner of the A-list - pop stars, film folk, royals, sportsmen, politicians - and made a self-reflexive fuss of him, hoping a little Mandela stardust would adhere to them when they left.

David Beckham offered him an England shirt, Geri Halliwell allegedly pinched his bottom, Michael Jackson was all over him like poison ivy, Naomi Campbell was on best behaviour, Bill Gates mocked Mandela's saintliness by affecting a praying stance (Mandela was clearly unimpressed) and Bono of U2 tried to embrace him like an old mucker. Through it all, Mandela smiled indulgently, accepting their familiarity as the price of being a real star.

But what was it about the former jailbird and retired head of state that brought them flocking to his side? Apart from his status as a symbol of the fight for human rights and racial equality, his embodiment of patience, stoicism and forgiveness during 28 years in prison, and his role as a great moral, as well as a great political, leader?

The answer is his lightness of spirit. His gentleness and serenity seemed the antithesis of politicians everywhere and of African heads of state in particular. He looked like a man with no dark secrets, a blithe statesman delighted by the outcome of his career and the evolution of his country. He became the physical avatar of a political role: the "father of a nation" who acted the benign paterfamilias to the rest of the world, when they visited his new South Africa to pay their respects. And they embraced him like children.


In The Independent on Saturday:


A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela