TWILIGHT OF A LIVING GOD

From the Archive: every month, his foundation receives over a thousand requests for his help. Adam Roberts watches Nelson Mandela in action and talks to those closest to him

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008

Double acts don't come much better. Nelson Mandela enters grinning from a door on the right and shuffles forward, one hand clasping an ivory-white cane, the other arm held by a blonde assistant. His eyes are twinkling but watery, his ankles are permanently swollen, and his knees hardly bend--the result of an accident in prison with a pile of seaweed. "Madiba!" murmurs an excited crowd, using his clan name. "Tata Madiba."

He makes it to the centre of the room and is met by the one person who can upstage him. Anyone sensitive to bright colours should look away now. As usual, Mandela is a tropical pensioner: white hair with a touch of grey; a white vest under a shirt of shimmery blue, gold and brown; a pair of gold pens in his top pocket. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also smiling, bounces up. He is resplendent in full-length purple and his head is smooth, shiny, a contrast to Mandela's shock of white. Around Tutu's neck swings a golden cross, the size of a ping-pong bat.

Politicians and veterans of the struggle for democracy have gathered in Johannesburg to launch the celebrations for Mandela's 90th birthday, which falls on July 18th. The launch is in March: the festivities will take months, and will include a charity concert in Hyde Park, London, featuring Queen, Annie Lennox and leading African bands. Film crews and cameramen pack the room and late-summer sunshine pours through the windows as the two old men hold court. Tutu stands with his back straight, palms pressed together in front of his face, looking not so much like a bishop as a schoolboy imitating a bishop. Mandela steps forward as Tutu bows deeply from the waist and holds himself low, showing off his bald pate. Somehow he makes the gesture both respectful and slightly mocking.

Mandela: "I am a sinner."
Tutu (standing back up): "I will absolve you!"
Mandela: "If you clear the way, I can knock on the doors of heaven!"

The two men break up laughing and the room roars along. We are giggling about the impending death of probably the most popular person on the planet.

Mandela looks healthy, for one who has had tuberculosis and prostate cancer, but he is growing frail. He struggles to get up from his chair, and gone at last are the prison habits of rising at dawn, making his own bed and polishing his shoes. His wife, Graca Machel, later tells me: "For his age and for his life story, he is in remarkable shape. If you find him sitting, you will not realise this is a man who has problems. Only when he stands you realise that age is taking its toll. The only signal of old age is the knees--they are weak and he needs support. And yes it is true that he forgets. His short-term memory is weak, but when it comes to things of the past he will tell you stories exactly as they were told before."

Mandela likes to joke about his own demise. He regularly promises that the first thing he will do in heaven is to look for the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement turned ruling party to which he has devoted his life. His friends say he is a believer, a Methodist, but not devout; his faith in the ANC seems stronger. In prison, he would attend Muslim as well as Christian prayers, but these days he rarely bothers with either.

I am back in South Africa, where I was a correspondent for four years, to talk to some of Mandela's nearest and dearest. I want to know about the man, but the myth keeps getting in the way. As Mark Gevisser, a South African writer, has noted, a fetish has been made of Mandela's biography: his suffering in prison and subsequent forgiveness of his tormentors opened the way for South Africans as a whole to seek reconciliation after apartheid.

Mandela discourages the mythology, but he is up against a powerful tide. He still draws vast crowds. In New York he was greeted by a ticker-tape parade, in Toronto by a sports stadium filled with frantic teenagers, and in Calcutta the crowd lining his route was said to be 3m strong. Statues have been erected: Parliament Square, in London, got one last year and an ill-proportioned dancing Mandela looms over a mall north of Johannesburg. A businessman in a South African coastal town proposed another, on an Ozymandian scale: a lighthouse-sized figure, intended to pull in the tourists as well as warn off the ships. Fortunately the plan foundered.

As a correspondent, I trailed him whenever I got the chance. If he was at a book launch, an AIDS press conference, or the funeral of an ANC veteran, I would go to listen and shake his hand. Even in retirement, a few words from him could make world headlines. Perhaps it was celebrity-chasing dressed up as journalism, but my behaviour was not unusual. Achmat Dangor, who heads the Nelson Mandela Foundation, says: "Mandela survived 27 years in prison and now he has to survive the affections of the world."

Even at nearly 90, and having gone into a well-publicised retirement, he gets around 100 serious requests a month from politicians, activists, lobbyists, business people, writers and fellow celebrities, all wanting him to add his name to something. "We're lobbied from two ends of the spectrum for him to issue statements over Israel and Palestine," Dangor says. "The assumption is that he can apply some kind of magic wand to fix things."

Dangor gives examples ranging from a suggestion that Mandela speak about a particular case of repression or conflict, "to requests for messages over global hunger, to AIDS matters, to energy conservation". There are "ten to 20" less credible requests for every serious one. "We have a team of three staff who just deal with the requests. They mark a wider problem, that people are looking for a miracle worker."

Those closest to Mandela are adamant that he is not a miracle man. His third wife, the Mozambican Graca Machel, is anyway not the sort to be easily wowed. Last year she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her humanitarian work, an old-fashioned title that must delight Mandela, who still calls diplomats from London "envoys of the British empire". The only person who has been married to presidents of two different countries (she is the widow of Samora Machel, Mozambique's liberation leader), Machel is frank about her relationship with Mandela.

"It wasn't love at first sight," she says with a laugh. Some saw it as a union of two prominent political families--it was clear that Mandela liked the idea of the match as well as the person involved. He may be a symbol of democracy, but he is also an African aristocrat, son of a chief. He admires Britain's constitutional monarchy, and pushed for democratic South Africa to enshrine a role for traditional leaders. He feels at ease with royalty and likes to ring the Queen for a chat ("Hello? Elizabeth? It's me, Nelson.").

Machel says her relationship with Mandela was at first a meeting of minds, a shared interest in working for children. One close friend of Mandela, however, tells me that he pursued his future wife assiduously. She chose to keep her name and he agreed that she would live and work in Mozambique for a time. Now, as they head for their tenth anniversary--they married on Mandela's 80th birthday--you can see that a closer bond has grown up. Mandela needs more of Machel's attention to get through the day.

*****

This is a precious time for those close to Mandela as--stating the obvious, yet it feels almost taboo--he nears the end of his life. Despite the birthday celebrations, he is fading from public view. He gives few speeches, hardly ever grants interviews, seldom comments on current affairs. The much-awaited second volume of his autobiography will not be finished in his lifetime. And as he fades, the chance to understand a compelling character slips away too. It is already growing more difficult to go beyond the brittle shell of the official biography, to see Mandela's imperfections and contradictions--the details that make him human. Once he has received his state funeral, it will be harder still. As with Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, the myth will take over and the person will become a mere icon, hollowed out and revered, but little understood.

Speak to those who know Mandela best, who are least in awe of the myth, and they make it clear their friend has some less attractive qualities. A common gripe is that he is aloof. Ruth Fischer, a psychologist and the daughter of the South African Communist leader Bram Fischer, has known Mandela for decades. She confides over coffee that, for all his star quality, "I certainly wouldn't like him to be my husband or my father. The reserve, the lack of spontaneity--there is something of an autocrat. He restrains himself, he is always careful, thinking through how he is perceived."

She is also at pains to make clear that he is charming and considerate, but, as with many a successful leader, and typical of an African prince, his reserve is what helps to generate his charisma, and thus his clout.

Mandela can be pernickety. He insists on carbonated water and complains if he gets the wrong brand. At one lunch I attended, the host resorted to mockery: "Did they give you Perrier on Robben Island, Madiba?" He has a sweet tooth: he spoons honey into his coffee, breakfasts on Frosties, shares double-toffee ice cream with his grandchildren and sips sugary South African white wine.

Prison has left its mark in unexpected ways. Graca Machel points to his obsession with reading all the daily newspapers, something inmates were denied. Cuttings are faxed to him when he travels. "He's worse than ever with newspapers. And the way he folds them, it is exactly the same every single day, it is amazing. If I throw it down, he asks me to give it to him and he folds it. He reads the newspaper and folds it, reads and folds. It is too organised for my taste.

"Everything has its place. Even today he will take off his hearing aid and line it up on the table, and then place the HIV/AIDS pin [badge] in position, then the pens, and everything has the same line. It shows how organised his mind is. If I change the order, he will realise and tell me 'no mum, this first'. In such a small place [as a prison cell], he needed to be extremely organised to give himself a sense of space."

Mandela runs on self-control, structuring his life down to the smallest details. In prison, he became a fanatical gardener, poring over books, collecting bones on the rare occasions when meat was served and then crushing them into powder, by hand, for days on end to make fertiliser, compelling other inmates to lug soil and water, all to make his tomato plants a success.

Machel observes no lingering pain from his incarceration, aside from his guilt at missing his children as they grew up. "He developed a selective memory and he cherished the good things. Maybe it is a part of him having decided not to be bitter, so he talks of the positive side." Bill Clinton tells of asking Mandela if he was angry about the years lost to jail. Mandela said that he felt furious until the night before his release, when he decided to quash his emotions, because "if I stay bitter, then they will still have my mind in prison."

But for all his reserve Mandela is not cold or emotionless. "He is definitely not a saint!" says Machel, with feeling. "Those who think that way, they don't know the person, they know his values and how he articulates them. He is like anybody else, he has his own weaknesses. He is a normal person, he has moods." She gets into the swing of it as we chat, re-enacting conversations with Mandela, miming his religious folding of newspapers, breaking into affectionate laughter at his foibles. She calls him Madiba, sometimes Papa, and says he can be stubborn, hot-headed and prone to berating his grandchildren in public if they perform poorly at school.

Nor is he diplomatic--he is too principled and strong-willed for that. His thin-skinned successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, grew irate when Mandela criticised South Africa's wretched AIDS policy. Ahead of the American-led invasion of Iraq, Mandela memorably called George Bush a president who "can't think properly and wants to plunge the world into holocaust" and dismissed Tony Blair as "the US foreign minister". In private, he grumbled that the leaders had all stopped taking his phone calls. His outspoken side does not fit easily into the mould of the man renowned for compromise, but he is not a passive figure, a pushover who seeks reconciliation for the sake of it. It is his confidence, his self-belief, that lets him reconcile.

To an outsider it looks as if it was the combination of principles and pragmatism that produced such an impressive leader. But not everyone agrees. In the townships around Johannesburg, some of the poorer residents voice sharp criticism of Mandela, saying he gave away too much, too easily, to white former rulers. One angry letter-writer to a newspaper a few years ago dismissed him as "an albatross round our necks". At the funeral of Mandela's closest friend, Walter Sisulu, held at a football stadium in Soweto in 2003, I heard a noisy crowd give a much louder roar of appreciation for Zimbabwe's despot, Robert Mugabe, than for Mandela. It was a chilling moment.

Some ordinary South Africans complain that Mandela and the rest of the ANC only half-ended apartheid, failing to secure economic as well as political change. Bongani Madondo, an irreverent journalist who dares to say in public what others only mutter into their beer in a shebeen, argues that Mandela has been made into the "god figurine" of our age. "I think he is flawed and we are flawed by not recognising his flaws. If you want to look at faults, you recognise he is human. We overrated him, we made him a saint. I'm an open critic. We should be dealing with a real person. We don't want to put blinds on our face. If you ask me, there are political problems with him."

Madondo says that nice talk about reconciliation merely put off a painful reckoning that must come eventually: the failure to shift wealth to the black majority leaves South Africa in a bind not unlike that in Zimbabwe. The "romance" of the Rainbow Nation was just a distraction. "There was a great failure to redistribute. Mandela was more concerned about his own legacy."

But a vain, self-important leader--such as Mugabe next door--would surely have sought populist acclaim by whipping up angry young men to threaten their former oppressors; instead Mandela restrained his followers, even after the assassination of an ANC leader, Chris Hani, by a white gunman in 1993. He helped to keep the birth of South African democracy as bloodless as possible, something too lightly dismissed by his critics. As for redistribution, nobody--not even the magician some take Mandela to be--could have turned one of the world's most unequal countries into a model of Nordic equality.

 

*****

Desmond Tutu still believes in the "crazy, lovable" Rainbow Nation (he coined the phrase, after all). I sit with him as we wait for Mandela to arrive at the birthday event. He drops his favourite hat, a Russian sailor's cap, on the table between us, and orders a cup of hot chocolate. Chatting to this other iconic figure, I think how lucky South Africa is to have had moderate and humane leaders when apartheid crumbled. The place could, otherwise, easily have been ripped to bits by the sort of warlords who led ethnic wars elsewhere in Africa and in the Balkans.

Tutu chuckles with appreciation at Mandela's character. "No question at all, it was his magnanimity which came through as a result of spending 27 years in prison. It was important he spent 27 years. He went into jail angry, and he mellowed in jail. He grew in his understanding of the other, and he grew in magnanimity and generosity of spirit.

"Can you imagine what it would have been like if he had said 'retribution'? We wouldn't be sitting here. I'm glad it was he, with his attributes, at the helm of our ship of state. We would have been for the birds if that were not the case. He has the capacity to reach out to his enemy, the flair for the extraordinary gesture."

Tutu later introduces Mandela as "very, very, dear, your excellency, Madiba". Yet even he balks at the idea of St Nelson. "He would be the last person to say he is a saint. He keeps saying 'don't put me on a pedestal, I'm an ordinary human being'. I can say he's an ordinary man who has done extraordinary things."

The saint stuff arose because Mandela filled a need in others. "I know we needed the incarnation of the saviour. We needed a Moses, who would strike a path to lead us to freedom. You can even think of Jesus--it's quite in order to say that there are Christ-like aspects of him. He has a really deep concern for others, especially for those who are being roughed up. It isn't something that he just puts on as a charade or a mask. He genuinely believes that he was given a leadership role in order to be there for the led. Which is an attribute that we see more in the absence, sadly."

Mandela is not perfect in Tutu's eyes. "I think one of his chief weaknesses was his unwavering loyalty to the so-called collective [the ANC]...he did not sack underperforming ministers as he should have done. Even now, he is such a stickler for the conventions that he'll try not to embarrass his successor. He's scrupulous in how he tries to hold back." But it was also this fierce faith in the ANC that got him through prison. It is a hard habit to drop at the end of your life.

Over the years I have heard of other failings, which are usually brushed aside as unworthy of discussion, presumably out of concern for Mandela's image. Some are significant, but none seem to me to diminish him--rather they are a reminder of the many pressures he is under, of the contradictory demands of his various lives. He should have done much more to fight AIDS, especially as one of his notebooks (discovered recently by someone at the foundation) shows that he recognised it as a "global threat and a crisis for the country" as early as 1991. But at least he later campaigned against the deniers and talked about his son's death from AIDS, one of few African leaders to discuss the subject in public.

Yes, he has kept some questionable company. He became embroiled in a nasty row with a former lawyer of his, Ismail Ayob, over issues of authenticity and accounting to do with the sale of artwork in his name. The greatest love of his life, Winnie Mandela, brought him his greatest pain, when he emerged from prison to find that she no longer wanted him. Her prosecution in 1991, in relation to the abduction, assault and murder of a teenage boy who was accused of being a police informer, hardly reflects well on him. But his early efforts to stand by her--she was eventually acquitted of murder, but found guilty of kidnapping--are best seen as those of a man loyal to a wife he had been forced to abandon decades earlier.

He is apt to seek favours from local and foreign businessmen, such as free flights for his extended family. But no one suggests that he is out for personal gain: he donated a third of his presidential salary to children's charities. "Such faults, the calling of corporations for favours, family benefits, it makes him human," Ruth Fischer says. "It's part of his life, and in part it is about his guilt to his family for being absent." Similarly, he is quick to hand cash, unasked, to young relatives. "Here, do you need money? Take it," he will say to his smallest grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

None of this belittles him. Instead the flaws and foibles confirm that he is an extraordinary person. Achmat Dangor argues that Mandela's great successes were the result of his willingness to dirty his hands--"It is rare to find someone with such strong principles and a sense of pragmatism." He has reinvented himself repeatedly, from insurgent to peacemaker, African nationalist to multiracial campaigner, aristocrat to democrat, country bumpkin to city slicker.

Everybody has a story about his shameless flirting with pretty women, at times even proposing to journalists who caught his eye at press conferences. Nor is this Nobel peace-prize winner a pacifist. One of his oldest friends, Ahmed Kathrada, who was jailed with Mandela, recalls him as a rabble-rouser in his youth. He tells me how Mandela, as a keen boxer, was deployed by the ANC to break up meetings of rival anti-apartheid organisations in Johannesburg. Mandela also launched the armed (if not very effective) wing of the ANC and became a Che Guevara-like revolutionary on the run, known for a time as "the Black Pimpernel".

This many-sided figure is a long way from the cardboard Mandela on whom others project their own idea of a good man. "One wonders whether he is going to be turned into an icon where he is all things to all people, an icon without substance," says Mac Maharaj, a fellow political prisoner and favourite of Mandela. He too is passionate about preserving Mandela the politician, which lets others aspire to follow him. "He is aspirational because you feel you can try to do what he does. Unlike the saints. You can't aspire to be a Mother Teresa. You've got to be down-to-earth. He likes clothes, he's a man of style. And pretty women. You can see the glint in his eyes! There is nothing superhuman about it."

And yet it is all too easy to drift into revering Mandela. My trailing after him culminated one Sunday lunch at an apartment in Johannesburg. The host was Amina Cachalia, a friend of Mandela since 1949. After his divorce from Winnie, the two were rumoured to be about to marry, not least because Mandela kept suggesting it.

A dozen people--his old friends, an author, an academic, a mining magnate--are trying to chat as if the world's most beloved statesman is just another lunch guest. We fail and gravitate towards Mandela, who is perched on a green leather chair. Soon the entire party, including Graca Machel, has formed a circle at his feet, a huddle of us cross-legged on the carpet, gazing up at the patriarch.

"Madiba always likes to hold court," Cachalia recalls later. "He will sit down and tell stories. He does it because he doesn't like to be asked questions. So he talks and talks. He is very clever at that, a defensive measure I suppose."

As we move to a long walnut table, and lunch stretches to its third hour, Mandela sips on his sugary wine and nibbles a biryani. The patriarch recedes and a more relaxed figure emerges. He jokes that women are taking over the world ("Is that right, mum?" he asks Graca across the room). His humour can sometimes seem deliberate or even manipulative, but now he is at ease and he dotes on his wife, prompting us to discuss her work with children. He jokes too with his old lawyer, Arthur Chaskalson, complaining that he got him jailed for so many years. "I saved your life, Nelson," Chaskalson retorts. "Without going to prison, you would have been assassinated."

The conversation meanders from one quietly serious topic to another, from a reminiscence about the life of Bram Fischer, to talk of AIDS, and on to Mandela's fruitless phone calls to Bush and Blair about invading Iraq. The talk grows heavy as we clear the plates and Mandela's energy is ebbing. Usually such lunches are brisk affairs, but this one has run on. Why are so many white South Africans grumbling about the country, asks someone. Then a bodyguard brings a message that some neighbours want to come in for a picture. A loud, middle-aged, white woman enters, leading four teenage girls to Mandela, who shakes himself up, rises brightly and pours attention upon them. He chortles and tells a story of meeting, years ago, the winner of a beauty competition. "What was her name? Yes, she was called Miss Africa Legs!" He asks each girl in turn if she has a boyfriend and laughs that women always tell him that they are single. Finally the camera is raised and the four teenagers cluster around him, staring seriously ahead. Mandela straightens his back. "You know, your boyfriends will ask, 'why did you have your photo taken with such an old, ugly man?' "

Adam Roberts is a former Johannesburg correspondent of The Economist

Photograph Getty