As Ex-President, Mandela Retains Aura

Times Staff Writer

On this wind-swept spit of an island, where penguins stood sentinel beside the road as guests pulled up in tuxedos and gowns, Nelson Mandela presided over dinner at the infamous prison where he was once held -- and enjoyed a little joke at the expense of President Bush.

People had flown in from London, Cyprus, New York and Paris last month to dine with Mandela, and they smiled as he recounted how he had just called British Prime Minister Tony Blair to dress him down like a schoolboy for supporting the American president on Iraq.

Next on his speed dial was Bush. But the White House brushed him off, according to Mandela, saying the president was "on the West Coast."

"The West Coast? There must be some means of communication. The West Coast is not a desert. What is his telephone number?" Mandela mock-demanded, as the black-tie crowd roared with laughter. "It was clear to me that Tony Blair had told him what I said to him and [Bush] didn't want to talk to me."

When Mandela speaks, he expects the world to listen. And it does. Like Jimmy Carter, Mandela has taken to the world stage on issues such as Iraq and the AIDS crisis. But unlike Carter, Mandela can lay claim to a stature left vacant by another former political prisoner, Mohandas K. Gandhi.

It's the rare person who doesn't take his calls, and everyone from former President Clinton to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has made the pilgrimage to Mandela's spartan former prison cell.

U.S. diplomats in South Africa admit to nervously bracing themselves for his regular disdainful critiques of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mandela tells friends that he loves the freedom he has to speak his mind now that he is no longer South Africa's president.

And as with Pope John Paul II, when Mandela speaks on weighty issues, people pay attention.

But if he sometimes ruffles feathers abroad, at home Mandela remains a vital consensus figure whose message of forgiveness and reconciliation is keenly reassuring in a society that so recently moved beyond apartheid.

People worry aloud about who will play this peacemaker role when Mandela, 84, is gone.

"In a way, morally, he's still at the helm here of this ship we're steering through difficult seas. He's a treasure beyond price," reflected Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist.

If Mandela's stature imbues his words with the power to rattle even the most powerful Western leaders, at home his overwhelming charisma dwarfs anyone in his presence -- most conspicuously, the younger, more worldly but less publicly poised President Thabo Mbeki.

Nowhere has Mandela overshadowed Mbeki more than in the push for greater action in the AIDS crisis. Mbeki once famously said he doubted the link between HIV and AIDS -- prompting howls of disapproval around the globe and deep unease in South Africa, which has the world's largest number of people living with AIDS or HIV.

"For heaven's sake, it's been proven a million times," Gordimer said. "It shows you're a big enough man to say, 'I was wrong, and now I've changed my mind.' But he doesn't do it. He will not give us what we need and put himself in the leading role in fighting AIDS."

Mandela, by contrast, has spent the last few years visiting AIDS clinics and orphanages and adding his voice to the call for broad availability of antiretroviral medications that can allow AIDS patients to lead productive lives and prevent transmission of the virus to newborns.

Mandela has come to be viewed as a potent critic of his government's AIDS policy, a role many say has cooled his relationship with Mbeki. Last year, as the government appealed a court decision requiring that it provide the drug nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women, Mandela called for people who desire anti-AIDS drugs to have access to them.

"My view is that a perception has been created that we [the government and the ruling African National Congress party] don't care for lives, we don't care that babies are being born almost every day by women with HIV," he said.

Mandela lent his image to posters and fliers for a march held a few blocks from the site of Mbeki's annual state of the nation address last month by activists demanding a national policy on AIDS. Then the former president's foundation publicly repented that decision, saying he had not meant to undermine the government and would not be joining the protesters.

Mandela says he regrets that he neglected the seriousness of acquired immune deficiency syndrome during his five-year presidency, which ended in 1999. He told an interviewer for an upcoming British documentary that he was preoccupied with nation-building and afraid of offending conservative black South African sensibilities regarding sex.

"AIDS is a war against humanity that I have committed to fight," Mandela explained when asked why he chose the disease to be, perhaps, his last crusade.

Comparisons of Mbeki and Mandela go beyond the issue of AIDS.

Although Mbeki has repeatedly opposed an attack on Iraq, it was Mandela who made world headlines in January when he accused Bush of "wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust." But Mandela also drew rare criticism when he accused the U.S. president of disregarding U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the issue because Annan is black, declaring: "They never did that when secretary-generals were white."

Even in South Africa, where his message of racial reconciliation is viewed as key to building a new society, some of his closest friends expressed chagrin at language so divisive.

Mbeki's arrival at the opening of the World Cup cricket tournament a few weeks ago drew polite applause, but the crowd erupted with joy when Mandela showed up. When he appeared at an African National Congress convention in December during a speech by Mbeki, delegates danced and sang as part of a standing ovation so rapturous that the current president deadpanned, "Hurry up and sit down, tata" -- using a term meaning "old man" or "uncle" that can be affectionate or dismissive.

"Thabo Mbeki is always compared with Mandela," said A.M. Kathrada, a 26-year political prisoner who was an intimate friend of the former president on Robben Island and has a good relationship with the current leader.

"[Mbeki] says: 'What do you expect me to do? Must I grow taller? Must I go to prison for 27 years? Or must I start wearing strange shirts?' " Kathrada said with an old-soul smile, referring to the ornately patterned African cloth shirts Mandela sports.

Regardless of who is running the country -- and many say Mbeki did a lot of the hands-on administration even when Mandela was president and he was deputy president -- there is little question who is South Africa's reigning face and figurehead.

"I still call him president," Parliament member Patricia de Lille said of Mandela. "He's just such an icon."

To many South Africans, Mandela is a reassuring paternal figure who can be counted on to understand the difficulties of his fellow citizens -- people like the unknown family who left their mentally and physically disabled 7-year-old on the doorstep of the former president's home after his annual children's Christmas party.

To South African image-makers, Mandela and his myth are something of a global marketing tool. That approach irritates some old friends, who complain that his handlers have become arrogant after rubbing shoulders with Oprah Winfrey and Bono and are obnoxiously eager to turn Mandela into a national franchise -- however worthy the causes that may benefit.

Kenny McDonald, an advertising executive who would like to build a sort of South African Statue of Liberty depicting the former leader in the city of Port Elizabeth, tells people that Mandela is second only to Coca-Cola as a world brand name.

"He's bigger than McDonald's," Cape Town artist Beezy Bailey said at a cocktail gathering before the Robben Island dinner. "They could make Mandela sunglasses and people would go for it."

After the reception, the guests took a foggy ferry ride out to the island. They marveled at Mandela's tiny cell -- with its tin cup, plate, waste bucket and blanket stretched out on the cold hard floor.

They had listened with keen interest at the banquet as Mandela's deep, warm voice filled the room with his version of the telephone conversations with Blair and the White House. Guests clearly felt they had pulled up their chairs at history's table.

"It seems quite clear that Bush has decided to act against Iraq whatever the United Nations does," Mandela had said. "He wants to strike against Iraq. He wants to act outside of the United Nations. We condemn those who act outside the United Nations. But with equal vigor we must condemn Iraq if it doesn't give complete cooperation to the United Nations inspectors."

Then bidding started in a charity auction of Mandela's artwork. British record company chief Andy Macdonald paid $113,000 for a set of works with Mandela's handprint called "Impressions."

Mandela's aides promise that he will step aside for a few months to focus on writing the sequel to his memoir, "Long Walk to Freedom," which is being developed for a film, with Morgan Freeman being courted to star.

If Mandela does stay out of public affairs, some people will be relieved. But the silence here could be deafening.

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