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    Father of His Country

    By Paul Taylor
    Sunday, February 13, 1994; Page W10

    His head hasn't touched a pillow in 39 hours, and the world's last hero is looking a bit decrepit.

    His gait is a shuffle. His speech is lumbering. His face is drooping. His hearing aid is missing. Every time someone at this evening's campaign forum asks him a question, he has to have an aide repeat it directly into his ear. Not a pretty procedure.

    Yet even in his diminished condition, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 75, manages to radiate the regal self-assurance drilled into him six decades ago by tribal elders who groomed him for chieftaincy and by British missionaries who schooled him for modernity. Without a trace of self-consciousness, he begs pardon for having left his hearing device back in the hotel room. Then he parries questions from a skeptical audience for an hour and a half, all the while battling the fatigue brought on by a nonstop negotiating session he endured last night to finish writing South Africa's first post-apartheid constitution. Very much to his specifications.

    His aides had pleaded with him to blow off this campaign event, his fourth of a day that would enfeeble a candidate half his age. It's a People's Forum meeting geared for the "minority" (that is, white) community of a medium-size farm town; the room is half empty and there probably aren't a dozen votes for him here. The unscheduled all-nighter would have provided a perfect excuse, but Mandela wouldn't hear of it. "It is my duty," he told his handlers, in the mannered pattern of speech that has always been a trademark, "to honor my commitments."

    As soon as Mandela completes some brief opening remarks, Johan Davel, head of the Afrikaner Chamber of Commerce in Empangeni, rises from his front-row seat. "Forgive me, Mr. Mandela, but you are not a young man," Davel says, posing the unvarnished question that must be on the minds of millions of his countrymen, white and black. "You may die . . . Once you are gone, who will be able to suppress the young Turks, the underdeveloped ones?"

    In other words, without the indispensable Nelson Mandela, what will keep South Africa from flying apart?

    NELSON MANDELA labored a lifetime to bring this election campaign about; he seems to relish everything about it, even this kind of disagreeable moment. And why not? After having been kept voiceless and voteless for 342 years, South Africa's blacks will cast their first ballots in a national election April 26 through 28, and Mandela -- the symbol of their struggle, the architect of their liberation -- is on his way to a landslide win that will make him this country's first black president. It will also close the books on apartheid, a four-decade-old political system that amounted to a kind of legalized plundering of a black majority by a white minority. The scent of victory gives all politicians an adrenaline boost; with Mandela, there's something extra in the octane. "It's as though he spent 27 years in prison getting wound up like some sort of mechanical toy, and now he's letting all the energy loose," says Tom Lodge, one of South Africa's leading political scientists.

    So the Old Man, as he's known, pushes himself through punishing days on the campaign trail, and still bounces up at 5 the next morning, in time for calisthenics and a turn on the treadmill. His predawn exercise routine is sometimes attributed to the regimen of prison life; actually it dates to his youth as an amateur boxer, when he did his roadwork at 4 a.m. Mandela now says he can't believe he ever boxed: "I must have been mad," he insists. But it's clear that the competitive furies that drove him then drive him still. All that's changed is the arena.

    When he emerged from prison four years ago this month, the world marveled at Mandela's lack of bitterness, his even temperament, his disarming wit, his genteel manners, his ready smile. Lovely as they are, these soft virtues don't go especially far in accounting for what he has achieved since then. At an age when most people are slowing down, Mandela the man had to measure up to Mandela the myth. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world had been shouting "Free Mandela" for a quarter-century. Now Mandela was free. The responsibility was daunting.

    It troubled him in prison that his legend had grown so immense. "No one who is flesh and bones wants be thought of as a saint," he says now, unless the definition of a saint is the only one he accepts -- "a sinner who keeps on trying." But Mandela's successes have mostly been the product of his unsaintly qualities. He can be iron-willed, bullheaded, arrogant, autocratic, exacting, contemptuous -- and, perhaps, a bit more bitter than he lets on. He doesn't advertise any of these traits -- which only makes them more potent. Especially when he wields them in combination with the weapon he earned breaking rocks and collecting seaweed for more than two decades on a windswept prison island. A martyr's halo.

    Consider Mandela's record since 1990. He had to transform the "world's oldest liberation movement," as the African National Congress still likes to call itself, from an underground, exiled, imprisoned organization into a government-in-waiting. He had to unlearn the shibboleths of socialism that had been discarded by most of the rest of the world while he was out of circulation. He had to engender a culture of trust in a society that had spent more than four decades codifying its racial fears and hates into a grotesque body of law. He had to teach blacks not to wallow in bitterness, and whites not to fear retribution. He had to persuade a generation of supporters younger and angrier and more traumatized by apartheid than he was -- a generation spoiling for war -- that the negotiating table was every bit as legitimate a theater of struggle as the battlefield. And he had to manage all this while his wife was entangled in a soap opera of criminal, financial and sexual scandal that destroyed their marriage.

    Mandela has triumphed by making all his adversaries feel the steel beneath his velvet. He has shamelessly bullied (but purposely not broken) his indispensable negotiating partner and Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, President Frederik W. de Klerk. He has marginalized, often even ridiculed, the notoriously prickly leader who had the temerity to imagine he was a major rival of Mandela's within the black community, KwaZulu Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi. He and his ANC negotiators have outsmarted, outlasted and overmatched their National Party counterparts during two years of constitutional talks.

    This last achievement is especially notable. De Klerk's ruling National Party government released Mandela from prison assuming it would be able to maneuver him into a constitutional deal that would effectively perpetuate white minority rule, but by some means other than apartheid. What the Nats didn't foresee is that as the talks dragged on, the power equilibrium between the negotiating partners would shift so dramatically. Once the April election had been scheduled, the bargaining was no longer between an incumbent government and a liberation movement; it was between a lame-duck regime and a government-in-waiting.

    De Klerk made his final and most important concession two nights before Mandela's visit to Empangeni, when the two leaders and their top negotiators met face to face to resolve the contentious issue that had been left for the end -- would the cabinet of the first government of national unity make decisions by a simple majority vote, or by a two-thirds vote? De Klerk had been holding out for the latter; Mandela had insisted on a normal majority. "Mandela simply would not budge," says ANC negotiator Joe Slovo, "and in the end, de Klerk didn't put up much of a fight. By then, he realized that the only option for him and for whites was going to be to trust the ANC."

    Months before, Slovo had softened the National Party's resistance to majority rule by pushing through a golden parachute clause, which guaranteed civil servants their jobs and members of Parliament their pensions. "When we got that, it was so fantastic no one in the cabinet could believe it was really true," recalls government negotiator Roelf Meyer.

    So, after 45 years in power -- first creating apartheid, then trying to dismantle it on their own terms -- the Nats became one more example of history's half-hearted reformers swallowed by the forces they set loose. In another sense, though, the National Party's miscalculation may well have been unique. This is a sitting government that wound up negotiating its own abdication, despite never having faced a credible military threat. What's more, it now stands poised to submit to the rule of the very people it systematically oppressed for nearly half a century.

    OBVIOUSLY, Nelson Mandela didn't do all this by himself. The inherent madness of apartheid helped, for it generated a powerful internal and external resistance movement that turned South Africa into a pariah state, and gradually stripped its defenders of the will to defend. Nor has Mandela done it flawlessly. By far the bloodiest period of the four-decade anti-apartheid struggle has been the four years since his release, during which nearly 15,000 people have been killed, mostly in factional fights between supporters of Mandela's ANC and Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. The roots of that struggle -- part political, part economic, part ethnic -- go back long before Mandela's release, but Mandela has not been able to find a peace. Nor has he managed to draw the militants among the Afrikaners (white descendants of mostly Dutch settlers who arrived in the 17th century) into the election process. They are planning a kind of phased secession into a separate but as yet unmapped state for Afrikaners, and, though few in number, they present a serious threat to the stability of the new government.

    What Mandela has done is isolate the hard-liners and place himself ever more firmly in command of what amounts to a "negotiated revolution." Although he won't take office until after the April election, he has been operating as a kind of shadow president for nearly a year. No major government decisions are made without his clearance. After the assassination last April of popular Communist Party and ANC leader Chris Hani, it was Mandela -- not de Klerk -- who gave the presidential-style address on state television appealing for calm. At that moment, one could see the old order giving way to the new.

    Mandela's genius these past four years has been to understand the possibilities inherent in being Mandela. He knows he can approach every political transaction from the moral high ground. This can be an unfair advantage for any partisan, and Mandela sometimes pushes beyond the limit. For instance, he is forever accusing de Klerk of "conniving" in the black political violence in order to keep blacks too frightened to vote. This is a charge unsupported by facts or common sense. Worse, it probably fuels the mayhem in the black townships. By further eroding the already battered legitimacy of the government's security forces, it strengthens the vigilante culture in black townships that really is at the heart of the killings. Yes, there is evidence that rogue security forces were involved in fomenting some of the violence in black townships at least through the early 1990s. But de Klerk himself has never been linked to such schemes, and he (belatedly) cleaned house of suspect security force generals in late 1992.

    If Mandela really imagines de Klerk is deriving partisan gain from the black-on-black killings, he need only read the latest election surveys. Mandela's ANC is hovering around 65 percent, while de Klerk's National Party is below 20 percent. When he released Mandela, de Klerk enjoyed double-digit support among blacks. Now his support among blacks (who constitute three-quarters of all South Africans) stands at 1 percent. "How can I gain from the political violence, when the black community holds the government responsible for failing to control the violence?" de Klerk asks, exasperated.

    There are several possible explanations for Mandela's continuing to demonize de Klerk over the violence. Either he really believes his own accusations, in which case his judgment may be more clouded by bitterness than he lets on. Or he has found it's good election politics, in which case he may be more of a partisan than he lets on. Or he realizes that such broadsides shore him up with his own militants -- and Mandela knows that if he hadn't kept them in harness, he couldn't have pulled off the negotiations coup of the past four years.

    WHATEVER THE MIX of motives, one thing is clear: Nelson Mandela doesn't always kowtow to his angry flank. Sometimes he manhandles it too, as scores of boisterous young comrades discovered recently at an ANC campaign rally in KwaNdebele, one of South Africa's 10 black "homelands" set up under apartheid. As the proceedings were about to start, a group of young men in one section of the soccer stadium ripped down the flag of the homeland party, Intando Ye Sizwe ("The Will of the Nation"), which they consider corrupt. The party is allied with the ANC, and several of its leaders -- plus two Ndebele kings -- were seated on stage. Mandela was furious with the breach of decorum, and stormed up to the microphone. "What right do you have to act like hooligans? I cannot stand that!" he thundered. ". . . When you behave like animals, you are actually disgracing the ANC and giving ammunition to our enemies who say we are not ready to govern. I am going to make a ruling, and anyone against that ruling must walk out. The flag shall be hoisted!" It was. They didn't.

    Mandela waited for several hours to give the shellshocked youths back their dignity. By then, he'd heard an earful of complaints from the audience about KwaNdebele leaders who always seemed to have enough money for a new fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, but not for homes and sewers and schools. "My sharp anger does not mean I do not respect you," he assured the protesters just before the rally broke up. "I love you . . . You are my comrades and we will die together." He promised to return ("It is my duty . . .") to consider their grievances in detail. The chief minister of KwaNdebele, Prince James Mahlangu, had flashed a huge smile when Mandela rescued his party's flag. Now he began shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Far more often, Mandela's campaign appearances are mutual love-ins. He gets rock star receptions from his crowds; when he arrives, they sing his name in the elegiac rhythm of African protest songs. The majority of South Africa's 30 million blacks lead bleak, impoverished lives, and Mandela knows how much it means in the townships and the villages when he pays a visit. He plunges into his crowds and offers them a trademark raised-fist salute, as if to transform their awe of him into his celebration of them, and of the wondrous moment in history they are all sharing. But as a candidate Mandela also has a puckish streak. He can peek out from behind his famous mask of patrician reserve and turn into a bit of a ham -- kissing babies, schmoozing with tribal leaders, flirting with pretty women, putting on funny hats and making jokes at his own expense.

    As a speaker Mandela is wooden, but as a listener he can be spellbinding. He leans forward in his chair when people address him, cocks an ear and sometimes even takes notes. One of the ANC's set-piece campaign events is the People's Forum, at which Mandela and other ANC leaders position themselves on a makeshift stage, often in a township soccer stadium, and have their supporters queue up at microphones arrayed in the stands. Sometimes, the microphones are on their own separate stage, and the symbolism is dazzling; the very act of climbing the stairs to ask the great man a question becomes an act of empowerment. The questions almost always cover workaday, mundane territory -- housing, jobs, schools, health care, crime etc. But that's the point: South African blacks have never before been able to ask such questions -- or had anyone willing to listen.

    Depending on mood, circumstance and audience, Mandela's responses will tilt toward one side or the other of his split political personality. He is alternately moderate and militant. One strain is rooted in genes, the other in a life under apartheid. He is a revolutionary in the manner of, say, George Washington. One of Mandela's stock admonitions to his more activist audiences, such as youth leagues and labor unions, is: "If the ANC government is unable to deliver the goods, then you must overthrow it." This always draws an enormous cheer. But as he travels the townships and rural areas, he more often sounds the opposite note: "You must not expect dramatic changes {the day after the election}, or in the first year, or even in the first several years. These things take time."

    IN ANY CATALOGUE of Mandela's admirable traits, consistency does not rank in the first tier. The same holds for his organization, the ANC, which has had to shed its Marxist leanings and make policy on the fly ever since it was unbanned in 1990 and found itself in a post-socialist world it could barely recognize. The strains show. Socialism and Marxism held enormous sway over all the African liberation movements, including the ANC, throughout the 20th century. While Mandela himself was never a Communist, about a third of the top echelons of the ANC leadership still belong to the party. Mandela emerged from prison as if in a time warp, still talking about nationalizing major industries and running a command economy. This sent a chill down the spine of would-be investors from the West, to say nothing of South Africa's own industrialists.

    The forces of capitalism rallied (as is their wont) and began organizing a kind of running tutorial for ANC policy-makers. A few weeks on Wall Street for one; a six-week stint with Goldman Sachs for another; a steady progression of seminars, private meetings and game park retreats with businessmen, financiers, international lending institutions -- all to impress the government-in-waiting with the magic of the marketplace. "They have been on a vertical learning curve," says one Johannesburg stockbroker. "It's been bumpy, but definitely moving in the right direction."

    The fruits of this lobbying campaign are visible in the ANC's recently released election platform, the Reconstruction and Development Program. It offers a balanced approach to bringing social justice to a notoriously unequal society, where whites, 12 percent of the population, own 86 percent of the country's land and 93 percent of its wealth -- and where more than half of all blacks live below the poverty line. The ANC document is more Roosevelt than Lenin. It calls for a massive public works jobs program, 300,000 new homes to be built per year, clean water and electricity for the tens of millions who lack it, up to 30 percent of the farmland to be redistributed to blacks on a "willing seller" basis. But on all of the sensitive questions raised by those goals, it is resolutely vague. Does the ANC believe in nationalizing the mines? A wealth tax to finance the cost of social reconstruction? A quota system to bring blacks into government and industry? A requirement that a percentage of all pension funds be earmarked for building new homes in the townships? The answers are: Maybe. On the very day the manifesto was published, and at least raised the possibility of nationalizing South Africa's gold mines, Mandela gave a speech ruling out that option. This is a fairly typical two-step for the ANC -- and seems to come with the territory in South Africa. Afrikaners have an expression that captures the instinct for equivocation rampant in a society where First and Third World must coexist cheek by jowl. Ask a hard question, and their stock response is: "Ya, well, no, fine." Or, better: "Ya, well, no, fine, lady man."

    The fudging will not hurt the ANC in the April balloting. This first democratic election isn't really about issues and platforms -- it's about liberation. At the moment, the ANC stands to get 70 percent of the black vote, and just 2 percent of the white vote. Why, then, has a plainly exhausted Mandela bothered to pitch up at places like the Empangeni Town Hall for meetings with whites? Because, with such a big cushion, he has the luxury of worrying about the governing that will follow the election. He spends a good deal of time appealing to whites not to emigrate; so do all top ANC officials. "We say to whites, don't run away and spread rumors that South Africa is about to become a banana republic," says Tokyo Sexwale, who is slated to become the premier of the region that surrounds Johannesburg. "You know when we will become a banana republic? When those people with the skills go to the U.S. and England and Australia and Canada."

    The rule in the rest of Africa in this half-century of decolonization has been that when blacks take over, whites take off. South Africa is likely to be the exception. Its white population is by far the biggest on the subcontinent, numbering more than 5 million. Whites have been here for more than three centuries -- as settlers, not colonists. They have nowhere to go home to; this is home. For all the infamous degradation they inflicted on blacks, they have built an economy that has a sophisticated First World infrastructure of mining conglomerates, stock markets, telecommunications and skyscrapers. All of this superimposed on a Third World economy of typhoid outbreaks, squatter communities, 50 percent joblessness. Most blacks won't be able to make the leap from one world to another, at least in the first generation. Apartheid has left them too unskilled. There's still not a single full-fledged black stockbroker in South Africa, and just a few dozen black accountants.

    But if the white economy is beyond the reach of the masses, it is also their potential salvation. If it can be made more productive (and most of South Africa's productivity problems of the past two decades have to do with labor market distortions created by apartheid), then it can be the engine of growth that fuels the ANC's social reconstruction program. Thus the irony: South Africa is about to become the richest and most powerful black-run country in the world, but it will need whites to run things for the foreseeable future. If it wants to help its poor blacks, it has to keep its rich whites.

    AND SO NELSON MANDELA travels the country speaking to groups such as this one in Empangeni. His overtures clearly have made headway. A recent survey of 100 top businessmen showed that 68 favored him to be the country's next president. This reflects a healthy accommodation to reality by economic elites. It is not shared by most ordinary whites, however, to whom Mandela stands for the ills of the rest of black Africa come to wreck their comfortable lives. Some right-wing fundamentalists consider him the antichrist. Others, like Empangeni Chamber of Commerce head Johan Davel, are simply confused. When it comes to the ANC, he says, he likes the jockey but not the horse -- a point he makes with unusual bluntness.

    When he asks the question about the future of South Africa without Mandela, Davel probably doesn't mean to be as offensive as he sounds -- he will later explain that by "the underdeveloped ones" he meant victims of apartheid, rather than genetic freaks. It's not clear Mandela hears the phrase anyway. He is not especially sharp in his response. He points out that young people are rowdy no matter what their race and background. "The ANC stands for peace and harmony . . . but whites think of us as public enemy number one. That's because we were banned for 30 years, we were voiceless. The only things you heard about us were from our enemies."

    Davel is unimpressed. "My question wasn't based on what I'd heard about the ANC," he will say afterward. "It is based on what I can see going on right now -- what we can all see -- the war between the ANC and Inkatha." Still, he says he finds Mandela "a great man."

    Mandela rallies a bit later in the meeting, when the leader of a small contingent of Inkatha supporters asks some questions. The mere presence of a dozen or so Inkatha members at an ANC event here in Natal Province is remarkable. This is a place of political territoriality and intolerance; people of one political persuasion don't tend to show up at rival political gatherings. It isn't good for longevity. Nonetheless, Inkatha's Francis Gumede asks a series of pointed questions that go to the heart of the rivalry between the ANC and Inkatha. Mandela gives a rambling response in which he pays formal respects to Buthelezi and insults him in the same breath. He concludes with a sly twinkle, noting that the ANC is eager to recruit all capable people, and suggests Gumede would be a perfect candidate for conversion. This gets a delighted response from Gumede and his mates, who whoop it up and raise their fists in delight.

    Given how little real dialogue there is across the ANC-Inkatha fence, it's a magic moment. But afterward, one ANC campaign official wonders aloud how much of a favor Mandela has done Gumede: "When word gets out what happened here," he asks, "how long do you think Gumede will survive?"

    NELSON MANDELA'S ability to reach across barriers of race and ethnicity stems from his natural air of authority. He grew up in Qunu, a village of the Xhosa tribe in the Transkei "reserve," where his father measured his status in wives (five) and his wealth in sheep and cattle. His father died when Mandela was 12, and the young boy was sent to become the ward of his cousin, the paramount chief of the region. Rolihlahla, his Xhosa name, means "someone who brings trouble on himself." He was suspended from Fort Hare University for political activism, and fled his village to avoid an arranged marriage with a girl he considered unattractive. In 1941, he moved to Johannesburg, where he became an activist lawyer and a founder of the ANC's Youth League. In response to escalating state repression, he later helped organize the ANC's outlaw guerrilla army. For 17 months in the early 1960s, he eluded police, disguising himself, most often as a chauffeur or garden boy, as he organized underground. It was then that the Mandela legend began to build, and he came to be known as the Black Pimpernel. He won international notice as the eloquent lead defendant in the Rivonia Trial, in which a group of ANC leaders were accused of plotting acts of sabotage against the government. Mandela turned the defendant's stand into an orator's stage. He never denied the charges; he simply spent hours explaining why he felt that justice compelled him to carry out such acts. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination," he concluded on the stand. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Mandela and seven codefendants got life sentences.

    He was imprisoned from age 44 to 71, forced to spend the prime of any political figure's life doing menial labor. But he also studied, read, taught himself Afrikaans and conducted a kind of running seminar in liberation strategy. Much of the cream of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement was imprisoned with him on Robben Island. The ANC, the South African Communist Party, the Pan Africanist Congress and other organizations maintained their structures within the walls of the prison, as they debated Marxism, black consciousness and military tactics. The ANC was the dominant group, and Mandela the dominant personality. He had an especially strong influence over the younger generation of anti-apartheid activists imprisoned in the 1970s and 1980s -- so much so that Robben Island came to be known in the movement as "Mandela U." "We all thought we were going to take power the Cuban way," says Tokyo Sexwale, "but by the time we came off the island, we knew we were going to do it Mandela's way. He taught us to confront the regime where it was weakest -- at the bargaining table -- rather than where it was strongest, on the battlefield."

    "He was a mammoth of a man," says Eddie Daniels, who shared a cellblock with Mandela for 15 years. "Whenever there was a political discussion, whenever there was some issue involving prison regulations, he was the leader." Daniels was the only inmate on the island affiliated with the tiny African Resistance Movement. Mandela would frequently give briefings to different groups of inmates on his negotiations over various prison-life issues with the authorities. "He would always brief me separately, as an organization of one. I finally told him, 'Look, I'm a nonentity. You can just include me in the ANC briefing.' But he insisted on maintaining protocol."

    Daniels, a retired schoolteacher, remembers once falling sick with a virus. He couldn't get out of bed for several days. "Mandela would come in and empty my chamber pot. He could have had someone else do it. But he did it himself. I will never forget that." He also recalls the stoicism with which Mandela accepted the two cruelest blows of his prison years -- news of the death of his oldest son in a car crash, and the death of his mother. "On both occasions, he didn't say a word to anybody. He just went to his cell and lay down. Finally Walter {Sisulu, Mandela's lifelong friend and ANC comrade} went in and talked to him, and told the rest of us what had happened. But Nelson was a hard man to console, because he was always the one consoling you. Whenever you got down, became demoralized, hit rock bottom, Nelson was always there for you."

    Since his release, Mandela has made some oblique references to food-for-favors scandals involving guards, but he generally hasn't dwelt on the harshness of prison life. Rather, he likes to recount how he became friendly with a few of the Afrikaner warders, and how they made him realize that negotiations might be possible even with the "hardest" part of the white community. "You had the warders arguing among themselves. Some said that when we left the island, we should be so completely crushed that we would never think in terms of taking up the armed struggle. Others said, no, they should treat the inmates decently, because we might win our struggle, and we should not think in terms of retribution."

    Listening in on those debates, Mandela says, he decided to learn Afrikaans, the oppressors' language so hated by blacks that it sparked rioting when the apartheid regime tried to make it the medium of instruction in black schools in 1976. "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head," Mandela explains. "If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." He even managed to persuade Daniels, who considers himself black but is what most South Africans describe as mixed-race Coloured, to relearn Afrikaans, the native tongue he had spurned for political reasons.

    In 1986, Mandela took what he still regards as "the greatest political risk of my life." He decided to open a line of negotiations with the apartheid government. Many times before, its leaders had offered to release him, but always on some condition: that he agree to renounce the armed struggle, or live under a form of house arrest in one of the black homelands, or both. Mandela's defiant "no's" merely added to his growing worldwide legend -- which was being skillfully promoted by the exiled leadership of the ANC in London and Lusaka, Zambia, and by his wife, Winnie, who was living through her own hell of arrests, detentions, harassment and internal banishments. But by 1986, Mandela could sense that the regime was under enough pressure that it might be ready for substantive talks. Boycotts and strikes were making the townships ungovernable, international sanctions were playing havoc with the economy, and mass urbanization was making a mockery of laws that were supposed to keep blacks out of white cities, except as day laborers.

    Mandela's problem was that he was in isolation at the time, and had no way to vet his decision with other leaders of the ANC, an organization with a strong culture of collective decision-making. So, on his own, he began talking secretly with government emissaries whose assignment was to figure out whether -- if they were to set him free -- he would be inclined to fight or to talk. Mandela told his interlocutors that if they really wanted constructive talks, they would have to unban the entire liberation movement, free all political prisoners and allow all exiles to return. It took three more years for him to get an audience and make that case with South Africa's crusty president, P.W. Botha. He remembers two things about the session, which took place in secrecy at the president's official Cape Town residence. One is that "Botha served me tea, and poured it himself." The other is that, around the time of the meeting, he was finally able to smuggle out of prison a long memo to the exiled ANC leadership in Lusaka, explaining why he had been negotiating. He got word back that some adamantly opposed the idea. But, to his relief, the more prevalent reaction was that of ANC President Oliver Tambo, whose basic attitude, Mandela now recalls, was, "What had I been waiting for?"

    Still, when Mandela came out of prison, he seemed almost defensive in his early speeches as he explained why he had been negotiating. He knew that millions of blacks had a psychological need to slay the dragon, and might not approve of his interfering with their chance. Moreover, a kind of proxy war against the regime was already raging between militants and suspected collaborators within the black community. Shortly after he got out of prison, Mandela traveled to Natal Province -- a hotbed of that war -- where he urged youths to throw their weapons "into the sea." They ignored him. He has been less vigorous ever since in his attacks on that strain of violence, which has metastasized into today's ANC-Inkatha carnage.

    There were other setbacks as well for the newly freed septuagenarian. He quickly floated the idea of calling for the international economic sanctions against South Africa to be phased out, in the hope that such a move would ease the political transition by providing jobs in a recession-racked economy. The members of the ANC national executive committee slapped him down, arguing they needed to keep a firm grip on all levers of pressure against the government. They also rejected Mandela's candidate for ANC secretary general, and at one point placed an effective ban on his holding one-on-one talks with the government -- by then led by de Klerk -- because they worried the Old Man would give away too much. "It took a while for Mandela to find his feet," says political scientist Tom Lodge. "He was accustomed to a court-favorite style of politics. A whole new generation of anti-apartheid leaders had come into prominence while he was in prison, and some were asserting themselves."

    And then there was the Winnie problem.

    THE RELATIONSHIP between the Mandelas is one of history's great, tragic love stories. The two met in Johannesburg in 1957, when she was an activist social worker, barely 20, and he was already an eminent movement leader, nearly twice her age, with a wife and three children. They made a striking couple: Mandela, so tall and elegant; Winnie, such an ebullient, wide-eyed beauty. They married in 1958, after Mandela divorced his first wife. He then proceeded to spend most of the next four years underground, and all of the following 27 in jail. She has since written that she realized that when she married the man, she was marrying the movement, but by all accounts their life apart took the far greater toll on her. Subject to constant harassment and banishments by the security forces, she became embittered and imperious, developed a drinking problem and turned increasingly militant. In the mid-1980s she aligned herself with radicals who were enforcing anti-apartheid consumer boycotts and strikes with a particularly barbaric form of intimidation known as "necklacing" -- in which suspected collaborators would be set alight and burned to death after their heads were stuffed through gasoline-filled tires. "With our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country," she said, infamously, in 1986.

    In the late 1980s she organized the "Mandela Soccer Club" in Soweto, which was a precursor of some of today's out-of-control ANC self-defense units. Ostensibly, the club was created to protect residents of Soweto from the security forces, and to stop infighting among rival gangs. In reality, it became linked with vigilantism, "people's court" street justice, common crime and outright thuggery. Eventually, four members of her club werejailed in connection with a dozen murders. She became a growing embarrassment to the United Democratic Front, which had emerged in the 1980s to run the anti-apartheid struggle in the townships while the ANC was banned. But she was so valuable to the movement abroad -- where she was the world's only visceral link to her husband, as well as a charismatic figure in her own right -- that people looked the other way. On December 29, 1988, her football club members kidnapped and beat four Soweto youths, one of whom, a 14-year-old, subsequently died. She was accused of kidnapping and assault. At her 1991 trial, she presented an alibi defense, claiming she was not even in Soweto when the beating occurred. The trial judge (South Africa has no jury system) found her to be an "unblushing liar" and convicted her on both counts.

    Mandela stood by his wife throughout the trial, but the bulk of the ANC leadership distanced itself as more and more damning testimony was presented. Other scandals cropped up as well; she was involved in an all-too-public affair with her young lawyer, and there were allegations of financial skulduggery at the ANC's Social Welfare Department, which she headed. Finally, in April 1992, in a voice choked with emotion, Mandela announced he and his wife were separating. "My love for her remains undiminished," he said of the woman whose photograph he used to dust every morning in prison. Winnie resigned from all of her ANC positions, and seemed a spent force.

    She wasn't. Last year the state's highest court overturned the assault charge, and let her off with a small fine on the kidnapping offense. She kept active in anti-poverty work, and found she was still very much the "mother of the nation" in the squatter camps and townships, where a criminal record can often be a badge of honor. This past December, she staged her political comeback by surprising the estimable Albertina Sisulu, Walter's wife, to win election as head of the ANC Women's League. In January, she received the fifth highest total when the ANC's grass-roots chapters voted to nominate 200 people as candidates for Parliament in the April election. (After a subsequent vote in the final round of the organization's multilayered nomination process, she wound up in 31st place, still high enough on the ANC list to assure she will be in the new Parliament, but probably not to guarantee a cabinet position.)

    Winnie Mandela is today what she has been most of her life -- a lightning rod. The National Party has reveled in her political comeback, running ads that pointedly ask whether voters are prepared to support an organization that might put a convicted kidnapper in its cabinet. Nelson Mandela has handled the whole matter with his usual dignity. He privately laments -- and continues to feel a measure of responsibility for -- the fact that Winnie has been psychologically scarred by the struggle in a way he has not been. Friends say he retains a protective feeling for her, perhaps something deeper. They remain connected through their daughters and grandchildren, and appear affectionate whenever their family or public schedules bring them together.

    Meantime, after he put some political distance between himself and Winnie, Mandela began to regain his footing on other fronts within the ANC as well. He used de Klerk to great effect in this endeavor -- in effect, keeping the spirit of the struggle alive by painting de Klerk as the evil mastermind of black-on-black violence, which, in fact, is driven by a far more complex set of dynamics. Four years ago, the newly freed Mandela called de Klerk a "man of integrity." Now he calls him a political criminal every chance he gets -- including at a press conference in December in Oslo, the day before the two men picked up their Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk returned home saying he had been "embarrassed" by the behavior of the ANC in Norway.

    The sharp attacks have also dismayed the white liberal and business establishments, which are forever running "Cut It Out, Nelson" editorials in the newspapers they control. And some black leaders too have tried to tell Mandela to cool the politics -- but to no avail. "I am in awe of Mandela," says Aggrey Klaaste, editor of the Sowetan, a black paper that has the largest daily circulation in the country. "He's everything you want in a leader. I would even say I am a little bit afraid of him. I have tried to tell him he should be more of a statesman and be above petty politics, but he just talks right through me."

    Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, says his "longing would be that there would be less from him {Mandela} of that hurly-burly stuff . . . He is the father figure of the nation. One wishes he would leave the rough and tumble of politics to lesser mortals." Late last year Tutu organized a church conference at which he wanted black leaders to examine the culture of violence eating away at black communities. Mandela turned up and ever-so-gently chastised Tutu for "preaching to the converted." Then the conference went into a closed session. When Tutu emerged the next day, he read a conference statement that served up boilerplate accusations against de Klerk's security forces, rather than a more interesting examination of the violence-begets-violence pathologies of the battle-scarred townships. Mandela had struck again.

    Trashing de Klerk has helped keep Mandela a hero in the townships, rather than some pale carbon of his own legend who sold out the struggle and talked to the enemy. The remarkable thing is, it didn't kill those talks. For this, de Klerk deserves his Nobel Prize. Not only did he have the common sense in 1990 to negotiate the ruling white minority's surrender-without-a-war, but he had the courage to stay with the abdication process for four years, as the terms of the deal kept getting worse for him and his white clients, and the political flak heavier. Raised in a conservative Afrikaner household that believed in the political and religious morality of apartheid, de Klerk has undergone a brave transformation. But it may have bred a certain contempt among Mandela and other black liberation leaders, who for so long consoled themselves that the impregnability of the Afrikaner apartheid fortress accounted for failures of their liberation armies. "We won't treat de Klerk like a rag," says Sexwale, a trifle wickedly, as he contemplates the imminent prospect of a five-year coalition government in which de Klerk is likely to become one of Mandela's two deputy presidents. "But have you noticed, the constitution doesn't provide him with any powers? Not even an office."

    THE RESILIENCE of the talks in the face of Mandela's use of de Klerk as a whipping boy also stemmed from the close relationship that developed between both men's seconds -- the ANC's chief negotiator, Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa, and the National Party's chief negotiator, Constitutional Development Minister Roelf Meyer. Where Mandela and de Klerk have never clicked at a personal level, Meyer and Ramaphosa have gotten on famously, their bond cemented by a fly-fishing outing in 1992 organized by a Johannesburg businessman anxious to play a role in midwifing the rebirth of a nation. Through two years of violence, crises, assassinations, strikes and walkouts, Ramaphosa and Meyer developed what the latter calls a "process alliance." They got some early coaching from Roger Fisher, Harvard University's getting-to-yes man, but one senses the pupils may have outdone the professor. "Ultimately we came to the view that there was no problem we could not solve," says Meyer. He shrugs off analyses that the National Party gave away too much, arguing that the spirit of trust and mutual dependence that arose from the talks is a better protection for minority rights than any power-sharing formula. "The solution isn't the solution," he says, suggesting some of the academic lingo has stuck. "The process is the solution."

    Certainly the creation of a culture of negotiations in such a divided society is a notable accomplishment. South Africa these days is awash in negotiating forums, conferences, retreats. It is not clear how much they accomplish, but there can be no doubt that the habit of talk will come in handy. The challenges facing post-apartheid South Africa are enormous. The new government will have to walk a perilous line between whites' fears and blacks' hopes. It will have to contain the violence likely to be launched by militant Afrikaner and Zulu nationalists who won't accept the results of the April election. It will have to clamp down on the anarchy and vigilantism in the townships. President Mandela will be a busy man.

    THE CONCERN that Johan Davel raised in Empangeni ("Forgive me, Mr. Mandela, but you are not a young man . . .") is on a lot of minds here. Though Mandela is remarkably fit, his medical history clean (except for a bout of tuberculosis in prison) and his diet and personal habits exemplary, three-quarters of a century is not exactly the optimal age to be embarking on such a difficult journey.

    The comforting thought for Davel, as well as for millions of other moderate, mainstream whites and blacks, is that the next generation of ANC and South African political leadership is already in place, poised to govern in the Mandela style. The two leading contenders to succeed Mandela are Ramaphosa, 41, a lawyer who came to prominence in the 1980s by organizing what quickly became the nation's most powerful union, the mine workers; and Thabo Mbeki, 51, who headed up the ANC's International Affairs and Information departments during his nearly three decades in exile in London and a series of African capitals. In the ANC's parliamentary list vote in January, Ramaphosa and Mbeki finished second and third, behind Mandela.

    There is little to choose between them. Both are pragmatic, elegant, articulate, even-tempered, witty men who seem as much at ease in a boardroom as a squatters' camp. The pipe-smoking Mbeki is less the natural grass-roots politician. He is the son of Govan Mbeki, one of the intellectual giants of the liberation movement, who was jailed with Mandela at Robben Island. But the younger Mbeki has forged some interesting political ties in the past year with militants in the ANC Youth League, who appear to resent Ramaphosa for the role he has sometimes played in disciplining them. Ramaphosa also has a bitter enemy in Winnie Mandela, who has accused him of leading a cabal to freeze her out, and of trying to undermine her husband as well. But the ANC's own polls show he is the more popular figure than the lower-profile Mbeki.

    One day these intrigues may play out in a succession struggle. Or perhaps not. Mbeki may choose to take the post of foreign minister in the new government, and make that his niche for the long haul. A natural diplomat, he seems less thirsty for power. Ramaphosa is a bulldog of a negotiator whom one colleague describes, aptly, as an "openly, joyfully cunning man."

    But these struggles are on indefinite hold. The Old Man is still running the company. There were times, in the first year or two after his release, when he seemed to be tottering on the brink of becoming a figurehead. Those days are gone. The closer the election has come, the stronger Mandela has grown. His historical assignment these past four years has been to step into the shoes of his own legend, and to keep the ANC alliance together long enough to stay the course of negotiations. He has succeeded. Now more challenges await, but never mind. Mandela seems to be having the time of his life. Looking ahead, he is reminded of an aphorism about Africa's most famous animal: "If you are in harmony with yourself, you may meet a lion without fear, because he respects anyone with self-confidence."

    Paul Taylor is The Post's correspondent in South Africa.

    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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