Charmed life of the last hero

'TWENTY-SEVEN years in prison do not, in fact, produce a very conciliatory form of intelligence,' Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel. 'Such a lengthy confinement makes a man either a weakling or a killer - or sometimes both.'

Nelson Mandela, who is 75 today, spent 27 years in prison, but he is an exception to the French philosopher's rule.

The president of the African National Congress also defies conventional wisdom on the decaying effects of age, as Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and numerous other luminaries, who queued to meet him on his two-week tour of the US this month, would testify.

ANC officials back in Johannesburg were less concerned about his health than that he might commit another of his celebrated gaffes. Such as meeting, and publicly embracing, Muammar Gaddafi, then causing a stir in Washington by proclaiming from Tripoli that the two men indicted for the Lockerbie bombing should not be handed over to the US for trial. Or praising Fidel Castro on US soil; or speaking on British television of his support for the IRA's 'struggle against colonialism'.

And yet, when he delivered an address at Westminster in May this year - at the invitation of both the Conservative and Labour parties - nearly 300 MPs and peers left the gathering uttering high praise. Why is it that, as a Philadelphia newspaper said two weeks ago, he remains 'the world's last authentic hero'?

In prison it was easy. He was the living symbol of resistance to the one political system in the world that every country, even at the height of the Cold War, agreed to be a crime against humanity. The test came on 12 February 1990, on the morning after his release, when he addressed his first press conference.

If there was a quality that shone through there, it was his generosity. Fresh from prison, almost his first concern was to reassure white South Africans that one person, one vote would not lead to apartheid in reverse.

Beyond words, he conveyed a unique mood, something that prompted the 300 reporters present at the end to break all the professional rules and burst into applause. It is a mood he still conjures up today. He transmits not the slightest doubt about his own importance and power, about the central nature of his role on the political stage.

An EC diplomat said last week that what all his colleagues remarked upon after private meetings with Mandela was his gravitas, his humanity, his charm, his clarity of thought: 'His nearest historical equivalent is Mahatma Gandhi. He is not always sure-footed politically, but he stands somewhere between earth and heaven, beyond the criteria reserved for mainline politicians.'

Most remarkable is the sincerity of his desire to reach out to his erstwhile tormentors and create the non-racial, colour-blind, non- tribal South Africa to which the ANC is committed. Evidence of this is his acceptance of a compromise brokered with the Pretoria government to defer majority rule until the end of the century in favour, after next year's anticipated elections, of a power-sharing government of national unity.

In an address to the nation broadcast live on national television on 13 April, three days after the assassination of the prominent ANC leader Chris Hani - a time when the anger in the black community prompted fears that the country might descend into racial war - he resisted the temptation to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Instead, he highlighted the courage of the white woman, an Afrikaner, who passed on the licence plate number of the suspected killer to the police, and used her example to make a passionate call for peace.

'Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being . . . Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, our grief and our outrage to move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country - an elected government of the people, by the people and for the people.'

It was the speech of a de facto president - barring a disaster, it will be de jure by the time he reaches his 76th birthday - and it made some impact on the white population. Since Mr Hani's assassination, as an opinion poll last week showed, Mr Mandela's support among whites has risen from 1 per cent to 3 per cent. Among blacks it has risen from 65 to 70 per cent. If the white electorate is unlikely in the April election to vote for the ANC in any higher numbers, it is largely because of its conditioning, but partly because it recognises that Mr Mandela will accommodate whites only up to a point.

Unlike the Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose support among whites in the poll was revealed to be 25 per cent (4 per cent among blacks), he is not offering the assurance that the status quo will remain largely untouched after the elections.

Described by an admiring Communist Party stalwart in the ANC as 'a militant old bugger', he lives up to P W Botha's dictum that 'a leader should not be a jellyfish'. At ANC policy meetings, no one is more obdurate when a choice has to be made between honour and compromise. Towards President F W de Klerk he has been as conciliatory as he has been intemperate. After the massacre of 42 ANC sympathisers in Boipatong township last year, Mr Mandela described Mr de Klerk as a murderer, declaring that the ruling National Party, the police and Inkatha were killing people simply because they were black.

Mr Mandela succumbs easily to his emotions, and outbursts of this kind have often served the useful political purpose of binding the ANC leadership and its supporters at times when the latter, drowning in blood, have doubted the validity of persisting in talks with the government. Vociferous among these has been his estranged wife, Winnie, who has railed against the ANC leadership's 'unseemly haste' to wrap itself in 'the silken sheets' of office. It was thought at the time of the marital separation in April last year that Mr Mandela, his eyes painfully opened to his wife's crimes and infidelities, might crack under the strain. He has not, and besides, unlike Mrs Mandela, has had the moral courage to offer a gesture of contrition to the mother of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, the 14-year-old boy kidnapped by Mrs Mandela and murdered by a member of her 'football club' of bodyguards.

On Thursday last week he addressed a rally at her home town of Parys and, having insisted she be given a place of honour on the podium, he spoke to her at length, pointedly, for all to see. She declared herself delighted afterwards, as did Sergeant Henk Prinsloo after Mr Mandela dropped in unexpectedly at the local police station. No institution has inflicted more suffering on the black population in general and Mr Mandela in particular than the South African police. But he told the local force that the time had come to forget the mistakes of the past and transform the police into 'South Africa's pride'. Asked by Sgt Prinsloo to sign the visitor's book, Mr Mandela wrote down, in Afrikaans, what people the world over will be saying to him today: 'Compliments and best wishes.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?