I ONCE met Nelson Mandela on the stump during South Africa’s first non-racial local council elections in 1996. He had decided, the previous night, to go canvassing in Houghton, the northern Johannesburg suburb where he lived.
The houses there are large and set apart from each other by high walls and razor wire – the siege architecture of a fearful society.
He rang the bell at the gate of the first house. The maid answered. “I am canvassing support for the ANC. Can we count on your vote?” he said into the intercom. “The master is out,” the maid replied.
“But you have a vote now too,” he told her. “May I come in?”
She buzzed the gate open and was astonished to find herself sitting on the veranda talking politics with the world’s most celebrated democratic champion. His security team waited in the street in the darkness.
The “master”, driving home, saw them – a group of armed black men – at his gate, panicked, drove on past and called the police, who then turned up expecting an armed stand-off, only to find the president of the republic at the centre of the melee.
He was still telling the story in all its comic detail at the polling stations he visited the next day.
Mandela’s was the indispensable character in South Africa’s epic story of transformation. For years, that transformation – and the fragile peace that he had achieved – hung on his continuing robustness.
Without him, most South Africans feared, there would have been a return to armed conflict, a flight of capital, an economic collapse and a descent into open war. I heard him joke more than once that he was the only head of state in the world who had to get up at dawn and go jogging in order to shore up the value of the national currency.
He once, as president, spent a few days in hospital “for tests”. The nation held its breath. He was discharged at dawn. The world’s press was at the gates.
“Can you reassure us that the tests you have undergone were comprehensive, Mr President?” a prominent white journalist asked.
“Er, well, I confess that I have not been seen by a gynaecologist,” he said, and the joke, well timed, well chosen, punctured the country’s anxiety. Getting up at dawn (and making his own bed) were habits acquired in prison. On Robben Island, new prisoners were greeted by their gaolers with the words: “This is the island. This is where you will die.” But Mandela and his remarkable fellow prisoners, including Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, turned Robben Island into what they called the University of the Struggle. They studied. They taught. Younger generations sat at their feet.
Even so, many of his supporters were dismayed by the message they heard after his release in 1990. Sisulu’s wife, Albertine Sisulu, said she couldn’t believe that the man she’d known as a vigorous young freedom fighter now sought not victory over, but reconciliation with, his oppressors. I would meet white people who had once supported apartheid who attributed this apparent mellowing to the years in prison – as though prison had been good for him, had “civilised” him.
It wasn’t so. Mandela came out of jail with the same vision for South Africa that had put him in there in the first place, the same values that he had championed in the 1950s – not a multi-racial democracy but more properly a non-racial one, a South Africa that belonged, as he put it in his inauguration speech in May 1994, to all its people. It was not Mandela who had changed, but the world and – finally, reluctantly, with immense pain – South Africa itself.
I once followed him around the Soweto Cricket Oval. The England team had come to play the first test series in South Africa since the lifting of sporting sanctions. As a gesture of goodwill, they began with a one-day friendly against a Soweto select team.
Mandela turned up unannounced. The Soweto players – all young black men barely out of their teens – lined up to shake his hand. It was a moment of huge excitement for them. He spoke to each man individually, held the gaze of each one, and their eyes shone back at him with an intensity bordering on devotion.
As he left the field he stopped to speak to a group of wheelchair users in the crowd. His security detail was frenzied with worry. One disabled man said to him: “We want to thank you, Madiba, for you great achievement.” “It is a great achievement,” he said, “but it is not mine. Do you know whose it is? It is your achievement. It is the people’s achievement.”
It is hard, when you are standing a few feet from this exchange, as I was, not to be beguiled. I watched him at the final of the Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg in 1995.
He was wearing the Springbok colours and the number of the team captain Francois Pienaar. Black South Africans had hated the Springboks – to them, rugby was “white supremacy at play”.
Pienaar later said that he found himself unable to sing the national anthem in the pre-match line-up because he was moved to tears by Mandela’s powerful gesture. South Africa won the match, with a drop kick, in the dying seconds. On the touchline, the post-match interviewer said to Pienaar: “You had great support, Francois – 63,000 South Africans here today”.
“We didn’t have 63,000 South Africans here today,” Pienaar said. “We had 43 million.”
The symbolism of it resonated around the stadium and around the country. South Africans cheered that louder than they had cheered the winning drop kick.
I saw him again in a court of law when he divorced his wife Winnie. It was the one time that many South Africans wavered in their support for him. For Winnie too was a popular heroine.
You saw the loneliness at the heart of his life that day. It was said that as president he would be surrounded by adoring admirers. But in the evening, more often than not, he ate his dinner alone at his table. “The defendant [as he described Winnie in court that day] did not once after my release enter my bedroom when I was awake.” It shocked many South Africans, who felt that it was wrong for a man to speak about his wife in that way.
Was he a great president? He made mistakes. Many were dismayed that he placed so much faith in his deputy, and eventual successor, Thabo Mbeki, the son of his Robben Island comrade Govan Mbeki. His government did not understand the calamity of the HIV epidemic that swept South Africa during his presidency, and acted far too late. But his unique and indispensable role was in winning the trust of South Africans on both sides of the racial divide.
They trusted him with their country, their livelihoods, their very lives. He did not let them down. He gave them their future. And there was no-one else, in that place at that time, who could have pulled it off.
• Allan Little was the BBC’s Africa correspondent during the Mandela presidency