Languages
Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 00:04 UK
Mandela celebrates 90th birthday



By Mike Wooldridge
BBC News, Johannesburg

He dedicated his life to a political crusade and became South Africa's first black president, but Nelson Mandela never lost the personal touch - as those who know him explain.

Nelson Mandela's release from jail after 27 years in 1990 brought hope of sweeping political change after the turbulent days of apartheid.

But negotiating the change was fraught with difficulty - and for key African National Congress strategist Cheryl Carolus this once presented an agonising personal dilemma.

Nelson Mandela and Cheryl Carolus
One thing that matters to Nelson Mandela so much is families - that's what apartheid took away from us
Cheryl Carolus

A crisis flared up just before she and her husband Graham, also an activist, were due to go away for a very rare and precious break.

Graham took the news that she felt they should postpone the break badly, plucked up courage and called Nelson Mandela.

He was, though, in a cold sweat as he began to explain that they had not seen one another in a long time.

Nelson Mandela stopped him and simply said: "You don't have to explain. Go away and I will explain to the others."

Carolus - later to become South Africa's high commissioner to Britain - says: "One thing that matters to Nelson Mandela so much is families.

"That's what apartheid took away from us with the migrant labour system, imprisonment and smashed up family structures."

Private man

There is, of course, another reason the man who was once the world's most famous prisoner is sensitive to protecting families - his marriage to his second wife Winnie was unravelling at this time.

Carolus says those who worked with him closely understood how deeply hurtful this was for him.

It is as if he has built a wall around himself
Amina Cachalia
She also says he tried not to allow the divorce to embarrass the ANC, and tried to ensure that his colleagues did not have to choose between him and Winnie because they were both leaders of the ANC.

Talking to people who have worked with Nelson Mandela before and since his long imprisonment and been close friends of his, I have heard time and again how one of the most recognisable figures in the world is also one of the most private.

"It is as if he has built a wall around himself," Amina Cachalia told me.

She comes from a family whose political involvement began with Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance movement in South Africa.

She says Winnie Mandela once told her that if her husband had not gone to prison or had come out earlier it is likely they would have separated anyway.

"I look at her very surprised," says Amina Cachalia.

Rory Steyn talks to Mandela
Rory Steyn realised little gestures were very important to the president

"I think she felt they had grown so much apart after her becoming politically active in her own way and being a leader in her own right they would probably have parted for some reason or other if he had been around."

Nelson Mandela's sadness over the parting of the ways with Winnie was to give way to the flourishing of his relationship with and marriage to Graca Machel, widow of the former Mozambican president, Samora Machel.

I met Rory Steyn, who led one of Nelson Mandela's protection teams during the five years he was president.

"When courting Mrs Machel," he told me, "he would buy her chocolates, flowers and jewellery himself.

Can you imagine what happens when Mandela goes to Sandton City (a shopping complex in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg) to go to the local chocolatier?

We had all kinds of schemes to say we will buy them and he would say: 'No, I want to choose them myself '."

Rory Steyn says he realised that the seemingly little gestures are really important to Nelson Mandela.

A big hug

Steyn says his upbringing and his training in the apartheid South African police force had made him suspicious of Mandela and everything he espoused but there was a moment during the day he was inaugurated as president in 1994 that made him realise how genuine he is.

After the inauguration ceremony in Pretoria the new president travelled to Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium to lend his support to the South African football team who were playing Zambia.

He was running late and had to return to Pretoria quickly. But, without saying anything and mystifying his protection team, Nelson Mandela got out of his official car and walked across to an old police colonel.

Mandela upon release
Nelson Mandela was a symbol of hope for South Africa
"The colonel's eyes were getting bigger and bigger as the president walked towards him.

"He put out his hand and said: 'Colonel, I just want to tell you that today you have become our police. The ANC won the election and I became president. I want you to know there is no more us and you and you are our police.'

"The old guy started crying," says Steyn. "Tears ran down his lined face and dripped on to the polished parquet flooring."

Cheryl Carolus has another personal story of Nelson Mandela's sense of priorities.

In 1995, she announced at a meeting that she would need to spend some time with her father over the coming weeks because he was seriously ill with cancer.

She says Mandela gave her a big hug and held her for about five minutes.

Later she heard from her father - "a poor ordinary working class man from a township on the Cape Flats" - that the president went to visit him without telling the hospital staff in advance and without the media knowing anything about it.

Among other things, Mandela spoke about Cheryl Carolus's contribution to the new South Africa.

"For my father," she says, "it was a dream come true."

Age of innocence

Today Nelson Mandela's memory and energy levels are good in the mornings though as the day goes by he gets "a bit tired".

At least that's the experience of Ahmed Kathrada. He shared Nelson Mandela's prison years with him and still spends time sharing views with him on current and past events.

But Kathrada says Mandela devours all the morning newspapers. "Retirement and Mandela are a contradiction in terms," he says.


Fifteen years on or so, with experience, quite a lot of where we are today is not where we were

Professor Barney Pityana

Yet, even if he is hardly retired in the conventional sense, there is one way in which Nelson Mandela's active influence is already being missed, according to Professor Barney Pityana.

Today the principal of the University of South Africa, he's been a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness Movement, human rights activist and theologian.

"Mandela belongs to what I like to call our age of innocence," he says.

"In the first flush of democratisation he was the amazing symbol of our hopes. But 15 years on or so, with experience, quite a lot of where we are today is not where we were."

Pityana maintains that the ANC is adrift in terms of its connectedness to its history and embodying the hearts and minds of South Africans.

He believes Nelson Mandela has made his wisdom available to the ANC as it wishes - but he does not want to become embroiled in any infighting or seen as a force for division in the movement.

I spoke to a group of young men walking along Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the township where Nelson Mandela once lived.

Their biggest challenge today is getting jobs. But one of them paid tribute to him in a way that I suspect he would appreciate: "He brought us the opportunities and the possibility for change."

Mike Wooldridge, former BBC South Africa Correspondent, presents "Knowing Mandela" on Radio 4, at 2000 BST on 17 July.


RELATED BBC LINKS


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific