If sainthood is defined by a capacity to sacrifice, then Nelson Mandela is the most sainted man of our time. Everyone knows about the 27 years he gave up for his cause. Less obvious are the sacrifices he continues to make in freedom.

There is much talk about the tension between Mandela the legend and Mandela the man. But the more profound tension is between the legend and the soldier. Mandela sees himself first and foremost as a soldier, a disciplined member of the African National Congress. Yet Mandela's legend has made him larger than the ANC, larger even than the anti-apartheid movement.

Indeed, he has become a figure of continental proportions. What Bolivar was to South America, what Lincoln was to America, Mandela is to Africa: the liberator. No other African figure enjoys that supra-national rank. Kenyatta of Kenya, Nyerere of Tanzania and Nkrumah of Ghana are national figures. Only Mandela's stature, like Nasser's (pre-'67) among the Arabs or Churchill's in the English-speaking world, transcends national boundaries.

Such a man could have dominated, taken over or even supplanted the ANC. Like Castro, he could have chosen to become the revolution. Instead he chose to remain a mere revolutionary. He accepts ANC discipline, ANC collective leadership, ANC policies. Having earned the grandeur of a de Gaulle, he chooses the self-effacement of a Washington. He dodged one question at a news conference by suggesting it be directed to his ANC handlers, of whom he then said good-naturedly, "Here are my bosses behind me." He was only half joking.

Mandela's sacrifice extends even farther. He is now on his one great triumphal tour. He may travel again, but never to the rapturous reception he is enjoying now. This one, his victory lap, is for the 27 years. The next one, coming after the inevitable compromises of real diplomacy, will be tame in comparison.

So to what does he devote his one great tour? To an issue even narrower than the ANC itself: sanctions, an issue that, as apartheid unravels, is rapidly becoming marginal. At most, sanctions are a temporary device to boost the ANC negotiating position vis-a`-vis de Klerk. To offer his legend in the service of so transient and tactical an issue is a tribute to his monumental self-discipline. It is as if the Second Coming were devoted to pressing Rome for the recall of Pontius Pilate.

And then on the Koppel show, Mandela went yet another mile in service to the ANC, supporting its embrace of those great American nemeses, Castro and Gadhafi. (In fact ANC alliances went far beyond them. It made common cause with Honecker's East Germany, Jaruzelski's Poland and Brezhnev's Soviet Union, the regime that raped Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and tortured Andrei Sakharov.)

Mandela's defense was simple, boilerplate ANC: these people have stood with us in our struggle, so we embrace them as comrades-in-arms without caring about their own record on human rights. "We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries," he said.

Mandela is too intelligent not to be aware of the glaring contradiction in his position. Here he is, on a world tour, demanding that the world interfere in the internal affairs of South Africa not just with words (all that is asked of Mandela regarding Gadhafi and Castro) but with the severest international sanction short of war: economic boycott. Then he turns around and says to Koppel, "Why are you so keen that I should involve myself in the internal affairs of Cuba and Libya?"

Why the contradiction? Because it is a tactical necessity for the ANC. Alone and besieged for decades, caught in a desperate struggle, the ANC did not have the luxury of picking its allies on moral grounds. In those conditions, you make compromises. You embrace the devil.

I am sympathetic to this line of defense. Necessity has its claims. One can hardly expect of beleaguered people the high-minded, clean-handed sifting of allies of a Sweden.

Mandela's principle of necessity is a reasonable principle. It explains why in Cambodia the democratic forces of Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann made tactical alliance with the criminal Khmer Rouge. It explains why both Israel and Angola's UNITA, isolated and boycotted by almost all of the Third World, have been forced to make deals with South Africa.

Like the ANC, Sihanouk and Son Sann, Savimbi and the Israelis are in no position to choose their friends. It is more than a tinge hypocritical, therefore, for Mandela's allies to attack those who, finding themselves similarly besieged, have done precisely what the ANC did with Gadhafi and Castro, Honecker and Brezhnev: deal with the devil.

We sitting safe and secure in the West can afford to be fastidious in our choice of friends. Mandela reminds us that those desperate for help do not have the same luxury. We who once made an alliance of necessity with Stalin should have no trouble understanding that.