He has gone from herd-boy to president-in-waiting, from revolutionary firebrand to elder statesman, from political prisoner to a political leader about to assume power in Africa's richest nation.
But perhaps the most remarkable and perplexing transformation of 75-year-old Nelson Mandela has been a more personal one. For despite 27 years in prison, most of it cut off from his family and the world in a dank seven-foot-long cell, he is not angry, bitter or vengeful.
In an hourlong interview Sunday, as the ballots were being counted that almost certainly will make him the country's first black president, the leader of the African National Congress looked deep into his past to explain why--and gave rare insights into how he will govern South Africa for the next five years.
"I would like to be angry, and choke somebody for all the wrong things he has done," Mandela said. "But to be able to be angry, you must have the opportunity to be angry."
And he never had that luxury when, as a young black lawyer in the 1950s, he fought the brutal indignities of apartheid. His most difficult cases involved the insidious and now-abandoned system of pass laws, which severely restricted where blacks could live and work in the white-run society.
"An ordinary clerk in a pass office could change the life of a (black) man by saying (he) had no right to live in Johannesburg," Mandela explained. "That man loses his job, his house. His children who are at school, their future is blighted. You can't go to court, because the law is clear. That little clerk, at a desk in a pass office, has got the power to change the life and the future of that man."
So each time, rather than fighting the system head on, Mandela would go to the chief pass officer, the clerk's supervisor, and say, "Look, here is the situation, it's a tragedy for this family.' . . . Invariably, these leading officials, when you approach them, are touched by human considerations and reverse the decision of the clerk."
Similarly, when he was charged with sabotage, a capital crime equal to treason under South African law, and put on trial for 4 1/2 years that ended in the early 1960s, Mandela clearly remembers the "marvelous" cooperation of the legal authorities, who allowed him to keep his legal practice going.
"Because the case would be heard from 9 o'clock to 1 o'clock, and the afternoon would be free, I was able to arrange with the chief magistrate that all cases in which I was involved should be in the afternoon. And they met me in this regard, prosecutors, policemen and magistrates."
The lesson, Mandela said, was "people respond in relation to how you treat them. If you treat them with respect, and ignore the negative aspects, you get a positive reaction. So even before I went to jail for 27 years, I could not afford to be bitter."
That is a lesson Mandela carries into the halls of power in South Africa, where he will oversee a country in desperate need of reconciliation and reconstruction after more than three centuries of white rule and four decades of the brutal segregation of apartheid.
He is a man of unfailing grace and dignity, which has endeared him to whites as well as blacks. And he has rock-hard principles, as his willingness to sacrifice his freedom showed. But he is also a pragmatist who knows how to meet his opponents halfway. All those qualities will be crucial as he tries to heal a nation so torn by violence and racial hatred.
Unseen and unheard while in jail, Mandela still became a figure of mythic proportions, an inspiration and rallying cry for the black masses. And since he was released from prison in February, 1990, he has earned the respect, if not necessarily the vote, of everyone from conservative whites to once-wary business leaders to President Frederik W. de Klerk himself.
That, in fact, is Mandela's most important asset. Probably more than any other leader in the nation's history, he has won the confidence and trust of millions of people, from the black ghettos to the white corporate suites.
Even now, his time in jail remains the defining period in Mandela's life and a large source of his worldwide support.
While in prison, the lesson--to treat people with respect--was even more important. He and his fellow black political prisoners on Robben Island, the desolate island prison off Cape Town, immediately decided to befriend the white warders in charge of their cells--"because the big chaps can only persecute you through the warders in your section," he explained Sunday.
"If you say to the commissioner, or the minister of justice, I want three blankets, he looks at the regulations and just says, 'Well, the regulation says two blankets.' " Mandela said. "But if you talk to the ordinary warder in your passage, and you say I want three blankets, he just goes to the storeroom and takes out an extra blanket and gives it to you. So you learn how to work with the people put in charge of you."
Once, when Mandela and his colleagues were walking slowly back to their cells from a long day of crushing rocks in the quarry, the prison's ambitious second-in-command barked out orders for the warders "to push us."
"They refused," Mandela said, "because they respected us. . . . We helped them. Drafted letters for them. So they appreciated our friendship. . . . So it became difficult to have any recriminations."
Mandela decided it was smarter to understand his enemies rather than curse them. So while in prison, he learned Afrikaans, the language used by the white rulers. And soon after his release, Mandela won the hearts of many Afrikaners by speaking their language when making speeches to them.
"If you speak a man's language," Mandela explained, "it goes straight to his heart and his blood."
During his later years in prison, white warders routinely referred to him as "Mr. Mandela," a term of respect used for no other prisoners. To this day, Mandela regularly talks by phone with his former prison warders, and he has invited two of the warders he knew best to the presidential inauguration in Pretoria on May 10.
Mandela's time in prison left other marks. He still gets up before dawn and makes his own bed. And he has built a vacation house that is an exact replica of the three-bedroom warder's house where he spent his last two years in prison. Mandela said only that it is easier to find his way in the dark in a house he knows.
His own family home was in the rolling hills of the Transkei. Born in Qunu in 1918, Mandela was the eldest son of a chief of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in Transkei. His given name, Rolihlahla, was prophetic: it means "stirring up trouble."
He was raised with the self-assurance of African royalty in the household of the Thembus' paramount chief. To outsiders, the cluster of whitewashed huts by the Mbashe River was dirt-poor. To Mandela, it was a land of riches.
"I listened to the elders of the tribe as they related stories of the old days when we ran our own country, governed ourselves, and the heroes that we had when there was a conflict between white and black," he said.
Once in office, Mandela said he will resume the popular "people's forums" he used in his presidential campaign. In dozens of public sessions, voters brought their troubles and questions to him. Each time, he listened patiently, and then responded with advice or admonitions. It is similar to how traditional chiefs operated when he grew up.
Mandela studied at South Africa's Ft. Hare University, where other leaders of independent black Africa have studied, and was suspended for helping organize a student strike. Still, he said he aspired to be a chief until the fateful day when the paramount chief, his guardian, attempted "a forced marriage and I ran away from home. And I got under the influence of radicals . . . and I then forgot about chieftaincy."
A striking, athletic man, he went to Johannesburg in 1941. He worked as a mine policeman and clerk, and studied at the University of the Witwatersrand. He became apprenticed to a white law firm before he established his own practice.
In 1944, Mandela joined the ANC, and with other young men turned it from petitions for redress of blacks' grievances to protests on a broader scale. When the National Party came to power in 1948 and began to impose apartheid, the congress launched renewed campaigns of civil disobedience.
Mandela was at first given a suspended sentence for violating the country's security laws, then was silenced and curbed in his movements by a government "banning" order. Later, he was detained along with 155 others, charged with treason and, after a trial that ended in 1961, acquitted along with the other defendants.
But it was not long before he was in jail on other charges. In 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The ANC was outlawed amid protests that followed the fatal police massacre on March, 1960, of 69 unarmed blacks protesting pass laws at Sharpeville. After that, it turned to sabotage.
Mandela was a key figure in this shift, drawing up plans to establish the congress underground and becoming the first commander of its military wing. The goal was to disrupt the economy and scare away capital. But to avoid loss of life, terrorism and guerrilla war were ruled out at the time.
Slipping across the border, Mandela visited Ethiopia, Algeria and other African countries, arranging military training for ANC members. His secret return to South Africa and his daredevil underground existence earned him the title of the "Black Pimpernel" and added to his romantic image among blacks.
His own romantic life is more tragic. He separated from his wife, Winnie, after more than three decades in April, 1992. In the interview, he said he has no plans to get back together.
But he did not seem especially upset at a recent threat by her to lead her ardent supporters into the streets if his government does not deliver on its promises for social change and economic justice.
"If the ANC fails to deliver, there is no reason for it to stay in power," he said. "And the people would be justified in throwing it out."
* ANC HEADS FOR VICTORY: The latest vote tally gives Mandela's party 53%. A11