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  •   Mandela: All in a Life's Work

    By Lynne Duke
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, February 23, 1999; Page C01

    DE AAR, South Africa—As he settles aboard the Falcon, his official jet, for the flight home, President Nelson Mandela is tired and his brittle legs are weary, especially that bad right knee. Michele Williams, a flight attendant, kneels before him and carefully removes his shoes. Mandela elevates his legs, stretching them out in a facing seat, while Williams flutters open a soft fringed blanket, gently arranging it over the limbs of her nation's beloved president.

    He is 80 years old, an icon in his twilight, tired at the end of another grueling day. But do not think that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is bowing to age. Not now, not just yet. Although only three months remain for him in office, his mission is far from over. Traveling with Mandela, even for one day, is to witness his extraordinary single-mindedness, moral suasion and personal contentiousness.

    With a cabinet minister, his secretary, his spokesman, three business executives, a foreign journalist, his doctor and his security detail, Mandela began his day of travel last Friday at 6:40 a.m. in Cape Town. He ended it in Pretoria 15 hours later.

    He has struggled up and down airplane stairs more than a dozen times so far, clutching the arms of his aides for support. He endured turbulent summer skies and rough landings on dirt airstrips. Pushing racial reconciliation, he delivered four speeches in three languages in three remote towns. Over and over, he danced his trademark shuffle, pumping his arms but barely moving his feet. He held talks with business executives he expects to build rural schools and clinics. And responding to a breaking crisis -- the news that a police anti-terrorism official has been ambushed on a Cape Town highway -- he tells his staff, "I must go to the hospital to see him."

    "It's not because I like it," Mandela says aboard the Falcon. "But I have to do it."

    His departure from office after elections in May promises to be an emotionally traumatic but pivotal moment in South African history.

    Three and a half decades have passed since he faced the gallows for treason against white minority rule, when he outlined the ideals of democracy and equal opportunity for which he was prepared to die.

    Mandela has seen part of that ideal come true. Apartheid has ended. Legal equality prevails. The nation's black majority is reflected in the composition of the government he heads. Rights of all kinds are protected as never before.

    But the struggle continues, and he is at its vanguard.

    He must keep pulling and pushing, cajoling and inspiring, to distance his nation from the psychic damage of apartheid, to buoy its fractious people with hope, and to convince them that everyone, black and white, is part of South Africa and must contribute to the new national identity he has tried so hard to foster.

    This is what Mandela does. This is who Mandela is.

    Traveling with Mandela also reveals the tough side for which he is known. Perhaps because he is tired from the long day, his usual graciousness is at a low ebb and he combatively deflects interview questions he is not keen to answer, especially about life after the presidency.

    It is conventional wisdom here that he is looking forward to retirement. He even calls himself the "de jure president," while his deputy and likely successor, Thabo Mbeki, is what Mandela calls the "de facto president."

    Last September, following a bout of severe exhaustion during a three-nation foreign tour, Mandela announced that he wanted "to be relieved of all government duties" so he could focus on the May election campaign. Jakes Gerwel, his chief of staff, clarified the statement the next day, saying Mandela would continue with his presidential role as required by the constitution.

    Despite those indicators of his seeming eagerness to retire, Mandela is defensive during an interview.

    Is he looking forward to retirement?

    "What is the relevance of that?" he snaps.

    In an ideal world, what would a typical day of retirement be like?

    "No, I don't think we should talk about ideal worlds. I am in South Africa, here," he declares.

    But he thinks a minute. On the subject of ideal worlds there is something more to add, something that softens his sparring. It is the little ones, his many grandchildren, whose formative years he does not want to miss, as happened while his own children were growing up and he was in jail for 27 years.

    "I have got grandchildren," he says with the usual gravitas. "I miss the opportunity of listening to them, to their dreams. I have vowed, whatever else I do, I must give space to my grandchildren and be able to help them to grow and formulate. . . . When school is open, I have to be with my grandchildren" in Johannesburg. "During the holidays, I'll spend holidays in my village."

    Tireless Appeals

    Mandela probably will continue some of the projects that have shaped his presidency, such as getting big business to build schools and clinics.

    Still, South Africans can scarcely fathom official life without him, so central has he been to the nation's recent history. During his years of imprisonment for leading armed resistance to apartheid, Mandela became the preeminent symbol of the liberation of South Africa's majority.

    When he was released in 1990, the death knell of apartheid was sounded. A treacherous transition unfolded. And then his party, the African National Congress, prevailed in 1994 in a resounding vote for democracy in the first all-races national election.

    Over the past five years, Mandela's role has been far more than just a president. He has been the nation's conscience, the voice of its aspirations. He is called "Madiba," the Xhosa clan name of respect conferred on him as a child, the son of a chief. Some simply call him "Tata." Father.

    He has maintained a continuous dialogue with the nation, trying to drive home some central truths about the new country and the paths he believes must be chosen -- or avoided.

    He routinely tells South Africans of the need for racial reconciliation; of the need for the white minority to step into the new South African mainstream and out of the tut-tutting margins; of the perils of blacks abusing their status as the nation's majority; of the special responsibility that big business has to help uplift the nation.

    That last theme was the reason for last week's trip here. This semiarid region of northern Cape Province, with its stark, wind-swept terrain and isolated towns, is home to harsh conditions, both physically and socially.

    Apartheid was raw here. It is a region of Afrikaner farmers, the descendants of the 17th century Dutch-French settlers who enforced their language, Afrikaans, and culture on the indigenous people, the Khoisan and the Xhosa. Over time, there also emerged the "coloreds," descendants of the light-skinned Khoisan, or products of racial mixture. South Africa's population is 77 percent black, 12 percent white, 8.5 percent colored and 2.5 percent Indian.

    The communities in the Northern Cape, still divided by race, are examples of the vast social needs left over from the apartheid era.

    So Mandela came here as part of one of his pet projects. With government finances stretched thin, he has persuaded big business, which basically means white business, to commit capital for development in poverty-stricken areas, which basically means poor black or colored areas. About 30 corporations have built scores of schools and clinics in rural regions like the Northern Cape. The targets of Mandela's persuasive powers on this trip are Gary May and Tshidi Tseane of Gilbey's, and Stoffel Cronje of Distillers Corp.

    "There is a realization that the community which has got advantages as a result of the history of the country must now share those resources," Mandela says during the interview. "Insofar as getting business to deliver services, it's something which I have to do because that need is there."

    Says May in a separate interview: "What he's saying is, there's a big backlog of development. There are communities that have been left behind. And so he's trying to take people there and say, 'Can you, as a business, put some resources in?' "

    May and his colleagues are considering Mandela's appeal. As the day proceeds, however, it becomes clear from Mandela's speeches that these liquor executives are being pulled along faster than they'd envisioned.

    "They have come to see for themselves what is required and to meet those whose needs we must all address together," Mandela tells a crowd in the town of Prieska, which in Khoisan means "place of the lost she-goat," population 22,000.

    "They are eager to play their part in the reconstruction and development of our country, and to share their resources with those who were disadvantaged in the past," he tells the crowd. "They are acting in the true spirit of reconciliation, a practical partnership to overcome the legacy of our divided past."

    As the day proceeds, May grows a little apprehensive about being drawn in too deeply: "He just must be careful not to overpromise, because we can't do every town."

    Mandela ended the day certain, though, that the liquor industry would do its part. His appeals, he said, are never turned down.

    The Art of Reconciliation

    The Colesberg Civic Center is packed. A choir of black, white and colored schoolchildren belts out a beautiful rendition of the national anthem. "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," they sing. God Bless Africa. For reconciliation's sake, the anthem was officially determined in 1994 to include the Afrikaner anthem, "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika." The Voice of South Africa.

    The combination of the two songs is one of the symbolic steps Mandela's government took to show its embrace of Afrikaners. Like many other blacks here, Mandela is not bitter toward the Afrikaner per se, though he has had differences with certain Afrikaner leaders.

    What does embitter Mandela are those whites, including the steady stream of those leaving the country, who refuse to embrace South Africa's new identity.

    Mandela seemed to say good riddance to them last year, when he characterized their departure as a possible benefit to the country. "We are convinced that the real South Africans are being sorted out in this process. . . . They are saying, 'I am not going to run away from my country. I am going to stay and serve my country.' "

    It is a theme he picks up once again here in Colesberg.

    "None of you should fear serving your own country," Mandela is saying, targeting the white minority with his extemporaneous remarks. "You have no other country. This is your country.

    "Don't sideline yourselves. You have the advantage of education. You went to schools. . . . You went to university. We want you. Don't be on the sidelines, because white supremacy in this country we have destroyed. It will never come back."

    So, too, he warns of black supremacy.

    "Now, to you blacks, Africans. We are in the majority and the majority tends to abuse, tends to have contempt for the minority. . . . One of the greatest mistakes is to try to abuse the minority."

    Mandela explains later, aboard the Falcon, what motivated his warning: "It's something which is there. If you don't caution about it, this may happen. And it is proper to caution about it before it arises."

    An Ordinary Life

    It is dusk in Cape Town, and Mandela is at the Milnerton Medi-Clinic now, seated inside a private room with a white woman pacing in front of him, gesturing excitedly.

    She is Rozanne Visagie, and her husband, Schalk Visagie, a senior police official, is at that moment in surgery to remove three bullets that struck him during an ambush on a suburban Cape Town highway. Visagie, commander of a unit that is probing the spate of urban bombings that have rocked Cape Town in recent months, is the second police officer on that investigation to be ambushed this year. The other was killed.

    Rozanne Visagie also happens to be the daughter of former South African president P.W. Botha, who has emerged since the end of apartheid as one of the most unrepentant, unreconciled leaders of the country's old order.

    While Mandela is meeting with Botha's daughter, whispers fill the hallway outside. Visagie wants to release a statement slamming Mandela's government for outlawing the death penalty, people are saying.

    "If P.W. wants to send a political message, he mustn't do it under these circumstances," a white man says with worry in his voice.

    Mandela emerges from his private meeting and makes a brief statement to a small press pack, saying he came only to show his support to Visagie.

    His face is sagging. His voice is raspy. He totters out into the Cape Town dusk, among police with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests, and heads to the airport for the last leg of this day's marathon.

    Back on board, when gently prodded, he returns to the subject of retirement.

    "Well, if you are talking about the fact that I keep in mind that in May or June this year I will step down, in that sense I'm looking forward to it."

    But, he adds: "It's just an ordinary event like the other events which take place in my life."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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