Past and future leaders party into the new dawn

JOHANNESBURG - The song 'I'm not in love' did not seem the most appropriate to celebrate the dawn of the new South Africa, writes John Carlin.

But inexplicably, as soon as Nelson Mandela, F W de Klerk and 19 other political leaders had pledged their commitment to South Africa's first democratic constitution, the tune wafted from the loudspeaker system at Johannesburg's World Trade Centre.

The mournful piano accompaniment seemed to have an effect on Mr de Klerk, whose moist eyes betrayed a truth rarely remarked upon, that he is a deeply sentimental man. As for Mr Mandela, for whom 3am is wake-up time, he was fresh as a daisy, flashing his famous smile. Since the ANC president, who is 75, had a plane to catch at 7am, his minders deemed it wise to put him to bed and spare him the party that followed.

Drinks, the World Trade Centre announced, were on the house. So was the cake. It was the birthday of the ANC's chief negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa. The man who, in a pleasing little 'new South Africa' ceremony, presented him with the cake was his opposite number in the government, Roelf Meyer. Mr Meyer made a brief speech. Mr Ramaphosa, who was 41, made one in reply, replete with cliches about 'the birth of a new nation' that came across as profound.

Mr Ramaphosa, Mr Meyer and their negotiating cast of hundreds had been going to bed at two and waking up at six every day the previous week. As the night wore on some 80 stalwarts - politicians, lawyers, journalists - dug deep into the supplies of champagne, whisky and beer. Professor Kader Asmal, the ANC's most illustrious constitutional expert, caused a sensation with his high-voltage response to the Beach Boys' 'Surfing USA' and 'Barbara Ann'. Roused by 'Rock around the Clock', Albie Sachs, another legal expert and member of the ANC's executive, grabbed a female journalist and hurled her around with his left hand, his right arm having been blown off in a car-bomb explosion in Maputo a few years back.

Mr Meyer took the floor fleetingly with the other twin star of the negotiations, Mr Ramaphosa, who remained there with his wife till long after first light. Each time Mr Ramaphosa paused for refreshment he went up, smiling broadly, to the more retiring Mr Meyer. Each time they shook hands, or traded a 'high five'.

Not that the Afrikaner contingent in the room all played the wallflower. Marius Kleynhans, a portly senior official in Mr de Klerk's office, was inspired by Bob Marley into arguably the most sinuous performance of the evening.

Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's national chairman, danced relentlessly but with the gravitas of a man who knows that on a day not far off he will probably succeed Mr Mandela as president of South Africa. Mr Mbeki dissolved with laughter when someone shouted that he was perhaps the first man in the world to have smoked a pipe while dancing to Michael Jackson.