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South Africa elections Monday, 14 June, 1999, 19:53 GMT 20:53 UK
1994 - 99: The Mandela years
Nelson Mandela - still campaigning at 80
Still campaigning at 80
By Carolyn Dempster

Nelson Mandela
In his five years as president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela has wooed and won over a divided nation, and charmed the world, with a style that is often referred to as the "Madiba magic".

Madiba is Mandela's traditional clan nick-name. The magic he deploys; compassion, humour, political shrewdness, and a complete absence of bitterness about the 27 years he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime.

South Africans across the political and racial divide have come to see in him the symbol of everything they ever hoped for in a leader; an elder statesman of intellect, sincerity and immense moral stature who has delivered them from their darkest hour.

If there are criticisms, then it is of his political office, but never of Mandela the person, whose personal quest to promote reconciliation has probably achieved more than any government policy over the past five years.

President Mandela's single greatest quality is his ability to reach out and touch the lives of ordinary people, and sometimes transform them.

The stories of his personal intervention are legion. In April 1998, a white farmer shot and killed a black child, Angeline Zwane, traversing his property.

Free Nelson Mandela campaigners
His imprisonment rocked the world
He claimed it was an accident, but the incident greatly heightened racial tensions in the area. President Mandela made a personal visit to the family of the dead child to offer them comfort and support.

What was not widely reported is that the same day, the president took a helicopter to the home of a 12-year-old white Afrikaans child, Michelle Smit, who was suffering from leukaemia.

South African Elections
It had come to the ears of the president that it was her dream to meet him.

In a busy schedule, he made time to grant her dying wish, without the attendant public fanfare.

Path to peace

When the first democratic elections were held in 1994, and the ANC swept to power, the 75-year-old Mandela initially turned down the presidency, saying he was "too old" for the post, and it should be left to a younger person.

In the event, it is doubtful the country could have progressed as fast, and as far, without him.

President Mandela has been central to the so-called miracle of a peaceful transition to democratic rule.

Prior to the 1994 elections, South Africa teetered on the edge of civil war.

While white right-wingers threatened bloody revolution, continuing political clashes between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party threatened to turn parts of South Africa into a wasteland.

The new ANC-led government inherited a country in economic decline, fractured into numerous administrative bureaucracies fraught with corruption and racial divisions.

Newly-appointed ministers were untested and inexperienced in governance.

Although the ANC is a party with a long tradition of consensual collective decision-making, President Mandela frequently took matters into his own hands as the quickest means to an end, demonstrating an authoritarian, disciplinary streak which stands in stark contrast to his public persona.

The steel which lies beneath the fatherly image of the genial and benign leader is seldom unsheathed, but there are many politicians and ANC members who have felt its sharp edge.

Former president and and fellow Nobel peace prize winner FW de Klerk experienced the steel in public when Mandela tongue-lashed him during a televised debate during the tense negotiations leading up to the 1994 elections.

Mandela voting in 1994
Casting his vote in national elections in 1994
De Klerk had touched the tiger in Mandela, and the country witnessed what lay in store as the president-in-waiting demolished his political opponent.

Loyalty is also paramount in the lexicon of the president.

It is often said he will forgive almost any misdemeanour, except disloyalty to the ANC. General Bantu Holomisa, a former ANC cabinet minister whom Mandela once treated as a son, felt the full force of Madiba's wrath when he implied the ANC had received generous donations from dubious sources.

He was expelled after refusing to recant.

In the early years as head of state, President Mandela became so closely identified with the fortunes of the new government that an ill-advised utterance could send the rand spiralling into a decline - which it did, on several occasions.

But the president also used his celebrity status to urge foreign investors to put their money where their promises were.

He convinced local white businessmen that direct action - building schools and community centres in impoverished communities - would be of far greater value than sniping from the sidelines.

Sections of South Africa's black community have criticised Mandela for "pandering" to whites, and for concentrating too much on foreign affairs rather than domestic problems like crime and job creation.

Stubborn and uncompromising

In his dealings in the international arena, President Mandela initially demonstrated his naivete in his belief that by taking a firm moral stance on issues, one would win over instant support.

President Mandela and President Clinton
Even the US President has felt Mr Mandela's criticism
In the case of the execution of opposition leader Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian military government, Mr Mandela went out on a limb at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1995, and pressured the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria from the club.

Mr Mandela also does not like being told what to do.

During President Clinton's visit to Africa last year, Mr Mandela, visibly irritated that the Americans were unhappy over South Africa's close relationship with Libya, told Clinton to go and "jump in a swimming pool" and insisted that South Africa would be friends with whomsoever it pleased.

Controversial ex-wife

The president's personal life over the past few years has been turbulent.

His commitment to his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was sorely tested during her trial for involvement in the abduction and murder of a young teenage activist Stompie Moeketsi Seipei.

Nelson Mandela stayed loyally by the side of his controversial wife then, but the marriage could not sustain the strain of political pressures and the long years of separation.

He chose to make a personal appearance in court during his divorce from Winnie in 1995.

Mr Mandela told the world that while he had no wish to "wash my dirty linen in public", he had been the "loneliest man" in the time he spent with Winnie after his release from prison.

Winnie Mandela
He said his time with ex-wife Winnie was "lonely"
The pain was clearly evident when he revealed details of his ex-wife's brazenly adulterous affair with a young lawyer, which Winnie continued after Mr Mandela moved back into the family home. He left in 1992.

The president cut a lonely figure on the world stage for several years, until, during an official banquet in France in 1996, he spoke long and glowingly about the sunshine along the Champs-Elysees.

The cause was a new-found love, Graca Machel, the widow of former Mozambican president Samora Machel.

In subsequent interviews the president confessed that he never thought it possible he could " fall in love and feel like this" ever again.

Although Graca had proclaimed she would never re-marry, the couple came under considerable pressure to tie the knot, from, among others, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In July last year the president sprung a surprise on the nation, and some members of his own family, when he celebrated his 80th birthday by getting married, for the 3rd time.

Craves obscurity

At a recent breakfast to bid farewell to the media, President Mandela openly admitted that for some time now he has been a ceremonial president.

His deputy and president-elect Thabo Mbeki has been the de facto president of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela married Graca Machel
Nelson Mandela married Graca Machel on his 80th birthday
"I welcome the possibility of revelling in obscurity" Mandela told journalists to amused laughter, adding that he'd like to retire, to spend at least some of his time, in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

A more likely role is that of elder statesman who will be called upon to mediate in some of the more intractable problems plaguing the international community.

In spite of rampant crime, and the loss of 500,000 jobs since 1994, after 5 years at the helm of government, President Mandela can and does claim, with justification, that his government has achieved what no government before has achieved - bringing together all the people of South Africa.

"We have confounded the prophets of doom. We have become a miracle nation."

Carolyn Dempster is a South African journalist who reports for the BBC

Alan Little explores 'The Triumph of Nelson Mandela' in BBC Radio 4's hour long documentary, 4 May 1999
South Africa correspondent Jeremy Vine reviews Nelson Mandela's life and work
See also:

28 Oct 98 | Africa
28 Oct 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
18 Jul 98 | Africa
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