Even whites are eating out of the great Mandela's hand: Oozing pride, the general said he and Mr Mandela had talked for 40 minutes

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UNTIL a few weeks ago the only people on the planet who were unaware that Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest individuals produced by this or any other century were white South Africans. But since he became president, that last piece of the jigsaw has fallen into place, elevating still further his status as a man of extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity.

Talk to white matrons at the supermarkets, advertising executives at the cappuccino bars, company directors in the boardrooms or farmers' wives in the Transvaal and they all say the same thing: 'He's a wonderful man, isn't he?'

Talk, for that matter, to General Georg Meiring, head of the renamed South African National Defence Force (SANDF). He is a huge Afrikaner who used to play lock forward for the University of the Orange Free State and, until barely 18 months ago, was grossly exceeding his brief by denouncing the African National Congress as a gang of communists and terrorists.

At an informal gathering of senior SANDF officers three weeks ago, the general stood up to speak. 'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I wish to inform you that last night I received a telephone call at my home from the State President, Mr Mandela.' Oozing pride (one officer swore he detected a misty eye), he delivered the punchline: 'He spoke to me for 40 minutes.'

No less proud was Francois Pienaar, captain of the national rugby team, when he received an invitation to meet Mr Mandela at the presidential office in Pretoria's Union Buildings on Friday. Pienaar confided to reporters that he was nervous and in need of advice about how to conduct himself in the presence of the President.

But Mr Mandela rapidly put South Africa's favourite blond pin-up at his ease, saying that he had called him so as to convey personally his congratulations on the splendid victory against England last Saturday, after the hammering the team had received the previous week. Mr Mandela said he hoped to make it to New Zealand to support the side in their next Test series, against the All Blacks. Pienaar replied that by then every player in his team would have memorised the words of South Africa's new joint anthem - the traditional hymn of black liberation, 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' - and promised that they would sing it from the bottom of their hearts.

Some Afrikaners may frown at Pienaar's promise. There still remains a small group - although it dwindles by the day - that holds to the notion that the 'volk' must have a separate homeland within South Africa's borders, a refuge from the black hordes. Many of these gathered in Pretoria on Thursday for the first sitting of the Volkstaat Council, a constitutionally sanctioned body whose task will be to address Afrikaner fears.

But amazingly - all the more so since the date was 16 June, the anniversary of the 1976 schoolchildren's uprising in Soweto - the man invited to make the inaugural speech was Mr Mandela's Deputy President (and former communist), Thabo Mbeki. He charmed the audience and was received with a warm round of applause. If Mr Mandela himself had been able to make it, the assembled Boers would probably have dropped their demands for a volkstaat by acclamation.

Nowhere has the change in white perceptions of Mr Mandela been chronicled more dramatically than in the Citizen, a Johannesburg daily which, until the elections, had steadfastly maintained a political line not only viscerally critical of the ANC, but also well to the right of F W de Klerk.

On Wednesday the paper commented on the thunderous reception Mr Mandela received at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Tunis, where the South African President felt obliged to remind his audience that he was not 'the Messiah'. The Citizen said it was 'very pleasing' to see 'the respect, almost awe' in which South Africa was now held.

'We take even greater pride in their recognition of President Mandela's stature in the world. He is a great man who towers above other leaders, both at home, in Africa and abroad,' the paper said.

The Citizen, at long last, is getting it right.

(Photograph omitted)