But at what price? What have been the difficulties and compromises of the past year? Does he think he has changed the racial mind-set of the country?
"I think it would be unreasonable to expect racism to disappear simply because the ANC is the majority party in government," Mr Mandela says.
"This is a process, it's not an event. It's going to take some years before we eliminate racism. I was looking, for example, at the last survey that was made, with regard to the support the President enjoys - 83 per cent from Africans, 66 per cent from Indians, 55 per cent from whites and 51 per cent from Coloureds [mixed-race]. If you take into account that there was a time when I only had 3 per cent from Coloureds and Indians and I think 1 per cent from whites before the elections, then you can see the progress that has been made."
But what have the tangible benefits been for the underprivileged?
"In spite of the fact that we did not have the infrastructure, we have already introduced a free medical scheme for children under six and pregnant mothers. We are now feeding, from January this year, no less than 4 million children, free of charge. We have started a water project in Port Elizabeth.
"Yesterday, I was in Northern Natal launching a land reform programme. We have set up a land restitution commission which is going to address the land claims of people who were dispossessed forcibly by the previous government. We have a scheme of rural renewal, because ... water in this country is a serious problem."
Ten days earlier, about 10,000 people from 17 villages in the north of the country gathered in a dusty temporary stadium in the Maubane village to welcome Mr Mandela. He had travelled to Moretele in the North-West Province to open a water scheme. "This will bring water to a community of 150,000 people."
More than 12 million South Africans are without clean drinking water. Most blacks are without electricity or running water at home. Eight million live in squatter shacks. About 12 million of an estimated population of 41 million are believed to be illiterate. Almost half the population is jobless.
Against this grim picture, projects initiated in this first year of Mr Mandela's government appeared a drop in the ocean. The President disagrees. "We do not want to be romantic, but I think we have made remarkable progress, if you consider the conditions under which we are working. People must be patient, they must give us time. To deliver means planning, organising of resources, the training of people. This cannot be done overnight."
He is familiar with the problems of delivery on the ground - for example, feeding 4 million schoolchildren. "In the countryside there are problems with where to put these food supplies. There are no buildings for that type of thing, to say nothing of refrigeration. There are just no means to keep food for the child. Secondly, the people are poor. They are hungry. When she sees a sandwich, an elderly person thinks of her stomach, and not those of her children."
There are good signs coming from the poorest areas. "Last week I heard news that reconfirmed my belief in the people of our country. Four months ago only 20 per cent of Soweto's residents were paying for their electricity. According to Eskom [the electricity supplier], the people of Soweto have pushed the figure up to 65 per cent. Soweto is an example to the nation - more and more people are paying for what they use."
But Mr Mandela acknowledges the darker aspects of South African life. He admits there are still problems with the police: "Sections of the police, although only a few, have been corrupted by criminal syndicates. The previous government was not interested in crime, they were concentrating on political activities, and therefore the criminals found an opportunity of strengthening themselves. "
Similarly, he is less than sanguine about the white civil service and its commitment to reform: "There are serious difficulties because we are dealing with white supremacy, and there is an inclination to resist the changes that we are introducing. You are dealing with people who enjoyed privileges that are completely out of proportion to their contribution to the development of the country, and they want to cling to these privileges. We do not have trained personnel, we have to rely on these old civil servants. Having said that, the majority of civil servants have responded very well. There are difficulties because we have to reorganise the civil service to be able to serve a democratic government, and this is going to take some time."
On the economy Mr Mandela shows more optimism: "But against this background, we have brought about peace and stability and investor confidence. We have published a budget that takes into account fiscal discipline and less government consumption, and we are developing for the first time in the history of this country a free market that we didn't have.
"I was listening today to the Minister of Finance. He wants to introduce strategies to encourage domestic saving in this country. This is important because up to now the rate of our domestic savings is 17 per cent of GDP, whereas a small country like Botswana, their rate of saving is 32 per cent."
Perhaps, closest to home, the problems with his estranged wife, Winnie, now dismissed from the government, have taken their toll on Mr Mandela in his first year of office.
When her name is brought up, his usually jovial self disappears. There is a hint of exasperation as he tilts forward and his voice deepens: "We must expect Comrade Winnie Mandela to fight back. But we have the situation under control.
"This decision [her dismissal] has been taken both in the interest of good government and to ensure the highest standards of discipline among leading officials in the Government of National Unity."
But does he not think that this action will split the African National Congress and bring disunity? "I don't think so. [General Bantu] Holomisa [a deputy minister considered a supporter of Mrs Mandela] is one of those that is regarded as a wild card. He has made a perfectly responsible statement to say that unity is very important and that the decision by the President removes uncertainty and speculation in the matter."Reuse content