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Last Updated:  Sunday, 2 March, 2003, 10:14 GMT
No peace for workaholic Mandela

By the BBC's David Dimbleby

Nelson Mandela has been up since 0500, done the daily exercises he has rigorously observed all his adult life, has breakfasted on fresh fruit, maize flour and sour milk, and is ready for the day's work.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela: No sign of retiring
"Get me the Pope and President Putin."

His long-suffering assistant Zelda (a white Afrikaner) hits the phones.

The man who accused Tony Blair of having abandoned the premiership of Great Britain to become foreign secretary to President Bush, still claims Blair as a friend, along with Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Fidel Castro and a host of other world leaders.

"Now that I have lost power they don't regard me as a threat. But do they listen? Some of them do."

Now 84 and walking unsteadily, his knees damaged as a result of an injury in jail, Mr Mandela shows no sign, as he puts it, of "retiring from his retirement".

His hectic and chaotic schedule became clear when we were negotiating to make two films about his life seen through his eyes. A computerised diary showed that every hour for weeks ahead was booked. There were visits to New York, Indonesia and Europe.

I wanted to be regarded just like an ordinary human being with virtues and vices
Nelson Mandela
He can only accept a small proportion of the 5,000 requests he has each year. There were engagements with film stars and millionaires, pop singers and models among the politicians and businessmen.

He often flies on a private jet loaned by a Saudi prince, stays at the Waldorf Astoria and in a lavish suite at the Dorchester in London. Finding a way of persuading him, amid all these attractions, to sit still for an hour at a time and reflect proved difficult.

Speaking his views

What was all this activity for? Surely the Pope and President Putin did not really want to take his advice. They might listen out of courtesy but not be much influenced. It is not always so.

He brokered the deal which led Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi to send the Lockerbie bombing suspect for trial at the Hague (and then turned up in Glasgow to complain at his conviction and the conditions in which he was being held.) But other international initiatives are less succesful.

His good offices served no purpose in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor did his offer to act as an intermediary in the Congo. Mr Mandela brushes off these setbacks. "Even if it is not effective," he told me, "you speak your views."

Despite being an icon of our times, universally known and almost universally respected, he remains unassuming and courteous, charming everyone he meets. He flatters men and flirts with women.

He is a consummate politician who deflects any questions that probe too deeply into his private life or emotions.

Family life destroyed

His old protagonist, former President de Klerk, says there is "a bitterness and resentment that does sometimes emerge" and Mr Mandela does not disguise his contempt for those who introduced apartheid.

"Of course I despised them," he said.

"They were despised by the entire world. They dressed in beautiful suits, silk shirts and silk ties. They were beautiful outside but full of evil inside."

One of the many humiliations Nelson Mandela suffered in jail was the deliberate destruction of his family life.

Landmark moments
1918: Born in Eastern Cape
1943: Joins ANC
1964: Jailed for life
1990: Freed
1993: Wins Nobel Peace Prize
1994: Elected president
1999: Steps down
He was not allowed to see any of his children until they were 16, and could not go to his son's nor to his mother's funeral. The warders exploited his former wife Winnie's much publicised infidelities.

Newspapers were banned in jail but they left cuttings of the more lurid stories to taunt him.

Mr Mandela has always been generous towards Winnie even when she flaunted her adultery.

He told me that the ANC wanted him to divorce her while he was still in jail, but he refused. She had been a pillar of the ANC and had kept his name alive.

"When she was caught with her pants down... one of the things that I always kept in mind was that I married a young woman.

"She was a very attractive girl and when I left home after three years [to go to jail] the temptation was too great for her and naturally she was unable to resist."

New life at 80

Today he has a new partner Graca, the vivacious and ebullient widow of Samora Machel, first president of Mozambique, whom he married on his 80th birthday.

Graca Mandela
Graca Mandela also has a busy political life
"I felt that a life together with her would be bliss for both of us," he says.

He says that she helped him mature and learn how to treat his children and grandchildren less severely than in the patrician way he was used to. For her part she is proud of providing the family life Mandela never had.

She gives a touching picture of their private relationship with a lack of inhibition he would never show.

It was when they were talking politics, she says, that she felt for the first time "a different sort of warmth, a sort of embarrassment when you look into the eyes of somebody and you feel this is not only respect, not just intellectual communication, but much more than that. Of course I said to myself, nonsense, it's nothing."

He started finding excuses to ring her and to go to Mozambique for weekends with her and her family.

His proposal of marriage was thought out carefully. "He is a man of small details. He thinks how to touch you and I must say I just melted. He did it very, very well," she said.

One failure, however, she admits to. She has not been able to persuade him to slow down.

Education and Aids

So their marriage is marked more by their absences from each other than their time together. They speak daily on the telephone and Mr Mandela's staff recognise when she is coming to town by his burst of cheerfulness.

But she pursues an active political life in Mozambique and in Johannesburg he heads a children's charity and the Mandela Foundation. These charities explain the relentless world travel.

The money he raises is mainly spent on two causes, education and Aids.

Aids is a complex issue for him. The epidemic was well established when he was campaigning for election as president. He intended to speak about it but met a setback.

"Africans are very conservative on questions of sex. They don't want you to talk about it. I told them we have got this epidemic which is going to wipe out our nation if we don't take precautions.

In 199 ways he was our country's saviour. In the 200th way he was not
Judge Edwin Cameron
"Advise your children that they must delay as much as possible before they have sex. When they do, let them have one partner and condoms.

"I could see I was offending my audience. They were looking at each other horrified."

He was advised that to talk about it might lose him election. "I wanted to win and I didn't talk about Aids."

Once safely in the presidency he still demurred. Judge Edwin Cameron, a leading Aids campaigner and himself HIV positive, believes he should have made it a national priority.

Accepts criticism

"He more than anyone else could through his enormous stature have reached into the minds and behaviour of young people," he said.

"A message from this man of saint-like, in some ways almost god-like stature would have been effective. He didn't do it. In 199 ways he was our country's saviour. In the 200th way he was not."

Mr Mandela's defence is that he had no time to concentrate on the issue. He was fully occupied trying to prevent the country falling into civil chaos, even war.

But he implicitly accepts the criticism. "It's no use crying over spilt milk," he said.

Since stepping down as president he has focused on the Aids catastrophe to the discomfort of his successor Thabo Mbeki. Their relationship is at best awkward.

Mr Mbeki was imposed on Mr Mandela as his vice-president against his wishes. In office he has dismayed Aids campaigners by casting doubt on the cause and its treatment.

Mr Mandela, while avoiding direct conflict with Thabo Mbeki and endorsing his cautious approach to the efficacy of the drugs in the third world, nevertheless now campaigns furiously for prevention, better overall healthcare, and crucially the use of retroviral drugs at lower cost where they are wanted.

Deliverance from chaos

Even in the eyes of his former white opponents in South Africa, Nelson Mandela's transformation from traitor to icon is complete.

His acts of sabotage, his willingness to countenance terrorism and guerrilla warfare have been expiated by the 27 years in jail.

Apartheid did not collapse because of him, but when it was on the edge of collapse the white government turned to him for deliverance from impending chaos.

A natural leader, born into a royal family in the Transkei, he handles his prominence cautiously.

"The impression you are a demi-god worries me. I wanted to be regarded just like an ordinary human being with virtues and vices," he says.

He takes me round the house and farm he has built in the Transkei. Included in his compound is an exact replica of the prison bungalow where he was held at Victor Verster jail, the house where he negotiated the transition to black rule.

This is the place where he could one day retire and will one day be buried. But not yet. As we talk an Air Force helicopter lands in a cloud of dust to the cheers of a small crowd of children.

Mr Mandela pauses only to tell them not to neglect their studies, climbs into it and is whirled away back to Johannesburg and another assignment.

No peace for a living legend.

Nelson Mandela: The Living Legend will be broadcast at 2100GMT on BBC One on Wednesday 5 and 12 March 2003.

Profile: Nelson Mandela
24 Jul 01 |  Africa
Landmarks in Mandela's life
16 Jun 99 |  Africa
Living in Mandela's shadow
07 Feb 03 |  Africa
Free Nelson Mandela - I was there
28 Dec 02 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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